During the offseason, Portland volleyball player Marlayna Bullington keeps busy with the sport she loves; this summer has been no different.
An outside hitter for head coach Rob Lesseman and the Lady Panthers volleyball team, Bullington spends her summer with another mid-state player, traveling the country playing club volleyball.
Over the last few months, she has been on both the west and east coasts competing in the AAU's, the BBCA's and the MVL tournaments. Bullington and her teammate placed fifth in the BBCA's and 17th in the AAU's, but it was the first-place finish in Florida that she will remember for the rest of her life.
Out of 115 teams, the Portland, Tennessee native was crowned the best - winning a National Championship with her partner. That success will hopefully lead her to a Division I scholarship, where she can continue her beach volleyball career.
"Both my partner and I really want to play college volleyball," Bullington told the Portland Sun. "The outdoor game is different from indoors but I like it more."
"Beach volleyball is so much fun because you have just two players on the sand," she said. "You get to always touch the ball and the atmosphere is completely different. I love it."
Though volleyball is volleyball whether played on sand or hardwood, she admits there are some differences that can throw a player off their game if not prepared.
"I'd say the sun and wind are the biggest differences," she added. "You have to be able to move with the sun because it can deter your vision. The wind is a big factor too because you never know if you're going to get that big gust that pushes the ball away from you."
There are minor tweaks to the beach game. The end lines are three feet closer and you're not allowed to open hand hit, you must use your knuckles to push the ball over the net.
A 12-hour drive to Port St. Lucie, Florida was not fun, but Bullington admits the trip was great for building team chemistry with her club.
"We didn't get to do a whole lot outside of playing," she commented. "We drove six hours on Thursday and another six on Friday before getting settled in to play the weekend. Being with the 14 girls was so much fun."
Bullington hopes to add to her trophy case this fall when the Lady Panthers take the court in their new classification.
"We know it will be different but we are prepared to out and rip balls, and give it our all," she said. "We will be focused on what we need to be focused on. Coach Lesseman does a great job of pushing us, getting our head in the game and preaching the team. He really helps us bond as a team, and he teaches us so many life lessons, not just volleyball. He is great."
Coach Lesseman has been around the Portland volleyball program for a long time and has seen Bullington grown into the young lady she is today.
"I've seen Marlayna playing volleyball before she was 3-foot-tall when her sister was on my team," he commented. "I knew she would be a good player. She loves the game, she has grown as a player and person and it's fun to watch. That is the best part about coaching."
Many high school coaches dictate the offseason programs their players participate in, but not Lesseman. He says he wants his players to go out and play different competition.
"It helps her with the indoor game," he said when asked about playing sand volleyball. "It's obviously going to give her some opportunities that she may not have had with the indoor game. I'm not going to keep anybody from going out and getting an opportunity to keep playing. When they come to me I want them to be focused on the indoor game, let them get the other stuff done and when they come back to us they will be ready."
Leseman will count heavily on his junior this year, saying he expects her and the team to really excel in 2017.
"I expect her to have a really good year," he said. "We have a lot of really good weapons around her, and that should take some pressure off her maybe. I see her having a strong year."
The 16-year-old Portland native says her dream school to play beach volleyball would be Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, but is uncomfortable with the 2,000 plus mile journey home.
"They are definitely my dream school," she said. "I would love to go, but it is so far away from home, and I don't want to be that far. I will do anything that I can drive but I just don't like the idea of flying to come home."
Bullington says she has been around the game for as long as she can remember, watching her older sister play the game.
"My mom played in high school as well, and watching my older sister and cousin in the gym I really fell in love with the sport," she added.
No one knows what will follow her high school career, but Bullington has made her ultimate goal in the sport clear.
"The dream is to play in the Olympics," she said. "There are several pro tours you can play on but the ultimate goal is the Olympics."