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Photo by Frank Couch.
Olivia Portera is determined to get Hoover back to the Birmingham CrossPlex and to win the Class 7A state championship in her senior season.
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Photo by Frank Couch.
As team captain, Portera’s job is to ensure the rest of the team is putting forth its best effort every day.
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Photo by Frank Couch.
Olivia Portera says she just has to be a “senior” in 2016.
That means showing up every day with the same mindset and determination to lead her volleyball team to a state championship, something the Hoover High School program has been on the doorstep of, but has yet to accomplish.
“I just have to demand everything every single day and nothing can change,” she said. “I’ve got to keep energy, keep effort, and every day in practice make sure that we’re all working as hard as we can.”
Portera is the unquestioned leader of the Bucs as a senior, team captain and libero, three traits that, on their own, generally speak to a player having a key role. Combine them together, and the product is a special player.
In the beginning, she picked up the game of volleyball at church at the age of 12.
“I started with all my best friends, and it became fun and then I got good, and it became even more fun,” she said.
That’s also when the hard work began. According to her coach at Hoover, Chris Camper, Portera displays a passion and work ethic toward the sport unrivaled by many.
“Getting better and loving the game is her greatest strength. If you don’t have that, you’re never going to get better, because it’s so hard to get better in this game and break through the wall that comes naturally to everybody that plays it,” he said. “There’s a significant amount of volleyball fundamentals that she has that other people don’t have. That’s not God-given. You don’t come out knowing how to pass. That’s stuff that she’s worked really hard on since she was 12-13 years old, and it shows.”
That work has helped lead her team to the Birmingham CrossPlex and the state tournament each of the last three years, where the Bucs have watched Mountain Brook win the Class 7A crown the past two seasons.
Camper said Portera would be one of the team’s best setters, but doesn’t do that from her current position. She also has experience playing in the big moments, as she’s started every game dating back to her freshman year.
“All three years, she’s started, so she’s experienced it,” Camper said. “She’s been in the toughest situations.”
Now in her senior campaign, she is looking to break through for that state title, and admits there is a little pressure after getting so close in the past few years.
“It kind of makes me nervous,” she said. “In past years I’ve been worried about it … but this year, we’re all super close, and I think that as long as we have fun, we can go as far as we want to.”
That road was made a little tougher when all-star level setter and junior Jamie Gregg went down with a knee injury during the spring softball season. There are talented players ready to step up in her spot, but that experience and chemistry only comes by playing games.
Along with losing a player of that caliber, Gregg’s leadership skills are not lost on Portera, which made Gregg’s injury slightly unsettling for the senior. But in her absence, she has increased her leadership role that much more.
“I was a little worried. She was just as demanding as I was even though she was younger,” Portera said. “I’ve just given a little more to make sure they know that we mean business now that we have to step up, now that we’ve lost a player.”
It’s not just on the court where Portera makes her presence felt. In her mind, being a leader of the team begins before any games are played.
“It starts off the court, too,” she said. “Making sure everyone wears what we’re supposed to wear. In workouts, making sure everybody goes as hard as they can. On the court, making sure everybody gives everything, effort and energy.”
However far Portera is able to lead the Bucs this fall, her volleyball career will not end at Hoover. She has committed to play collegiately at Jacksonville State University for coach Terry Gamble.
“I really liked coach Gamble,” she said. “I like the school, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about it.”
Another advantage Jacksonville State had in its camp was the nursing program, the education path Portera plans to pursue.
Camper said he believes his star player will be in the mix for immediate playing time.
“They know right away she’s going to compete to play,” he said. “The thing about playing volleyball at that level is there is no substitute for skill. She’s going to walk in the door and pass as well as anyone they have on campus.”
Portera and Camper both agree she is prepared for the next level. Camper said everything throughout his program at Hoover is designed with college volleyball in mind. He made an example of why he altered Portera’s passing form when she was 14 or 15 years old.
“In college, everybody is an elite athlete. They also have elite skill, and that’s what she can do,” Camper said.