Back when she was 5 years old, Morgan Hooe had the best seat in the house for Service High volleyball matches.
"She used to sit on my lap," remembers her dad, Virgil Hooe, the greatest high school volleyball coach in Alaska history. "I'd have to pick her up and put her in the seat next to me when I got angry and had to call a timeout."
Bump-set-spike became the ABCs of her childhood, and as she watched hundreds of matches while perched on her dad's lap, Morgan absorbed the fundamentals and nuances of the game like a sponge.
"I would yell at his girls on the bench — 'Why did you do that?' And I'd have my head in my hands," Morgan said. "I'm surprised the girls didn't want to kill me.
"One time, one of his girls looked at me like, 'Why are you talking to me?' and he turned to her and said, 'Was she wrong?' ''
In grade school Morgan would tag along when Virgil took teams of high school all-stars to the prestigious Volleyball Festival in Phoenix, where Morgan continued to drop knowledge on players nearly twice her age.
"She's 9 years old and she's yelling, 'You've gotta get low to pass the ball,' '' Virgil said. "Here's a 9-year-old getting on a varsity-level kid. What it told me was how much she was observing the game, taking in the game and processing the game."
From mini-coach to high school star to college All-American, Morgan Hooe will play for the final time in front of a hometown crowd when she leads the top-seeded Seawolves into the West Region tournament, which begins Thursday at the Alaska Airlines Center.
Impact player from the start
A 5-foot-6 senior setter, Hooe is the leader of a UAA team that is 29-2 and ranked ninth among the nation's NCAA Division II teams. A week ago she was named the Player of the Year in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, and this week she was named the Player of the Year in the West Region.
Her volleyball IQ is off the charts, and so are her skills.
Hooe, 21, is cool and confident as she quarterbacks the team, able to turn bad passes into quality sets, stealthy enough to catch opponents flat-footed with dumps, versatile and athletic enough to provide dimension as a blocker and attacker.
She came to UAA out of South High and made an immediate impact. As a freshman she was part of a 6-2 system that employs two setters, but by the time she was a sophomore UAA was able to go to a 5-1, which relies on a single setter.
As a junior she earned all-conference, all-region and third-team All America honors for a 27-3 team that spent most of the season in the national rankings before losing in the second round of the West Regions.
As a senior, she was reunited with her dad.
Godfather of Alaska volleyball
Virgil Hooe is synonymous with volleyball in Alaska, a man who has elevated and influenced the sport more than anyone.
He won one state championship in five years as the West High coach and then turned Service into a juggernaut, guiding the Cougars to 14 conference championships and 10 state championships in 21 seasons. When South opened, he became an assistant to head coach Judy Knecht and had a hand in six more state championships.
In 1984, a couple of years into his tenure as the Service coach, he created the Midnight Sun volleyball program, a club that elevated the sport and helped dozens of players from across Alaska earn college scholarships.
Knecht retired last school year, giving Virgil a chance to spend this season on the UAA bench as a volunteer assistant coach.
The timing was perfect. Morgan was already a bona fide star, and UAA coach Chris Green was in his ninth season and had long since burnished his credentials by turning the Seawolves into a top-level program.
Bringing in an assistant with Virgil's reputation and resume may have been daunting for a coach still establishing himself, but not for Green, who just picked up his fourth GNAC Coach of the Year award.
Morgan encouraged her dad to join the team, because she thought he could help make a good thing better.
"I knew it was gonna be a lot of brainpower," she said. "They both know so much about the game it's kinda crazy. …I knew they would be fine. My dad knew his place, and Coach Green's been there awhile."
Green was happy to welcome Alaska's volleyball godfather to the bench.
"He's been around volleyball for such a long time. He's a wealth of knowledge I can draw upon," Green said. "He understands how I teach and how I do things, and he's very open to learning himself. There are many ways to coach volleyball, and there are many ways to play volleyball. The coaches who understand that are the best."
The fun end of the bench
Virgil has been at practice every day since the start of two-a-days in September. He's still coaching, but he's no longer the X's and O's guy or the guy who has to ride herd on everyone.
Almost every time a player rotates out of the lineup and goes to the end of the bench, Virgil joins her for a chat. They'll watch a volley or two and he'll ask what she sees happening. He might offer a tip. He might offer encouragement. He might even share a joke.
"I really enjoyed this year because I get to talk with kids. I get to be personable with them and I can talk about the game," he said. "The other end of the bench, that's high velocity. And I don't have to do that anymore. I can walk down there and have a comment for them or have a conversation. I can be a lot quieter with them than (the head) coaches can be, because they have to keep them motivated all of the time."
After so many years as a bench coach, Virgil loves not having to worry about the managerial chores that come with being a head coach or top assistant. He loves being able to just teach. Besides helping at UAA, he spent most evenings during the high school season dropping into practices at various Anchorage high schools.
"I was able to walk in, run the drills, and then I could leave," he said. "It's like grandkids: I love you, now go home."
A devastating loss
Virgil is 69 years old and jokes about starting the Midnight Sun program "when Abraham Lincoln was a freshman."
He was 35 when he got together with Liz Hansen, a multi-sport star at Dimond High in the late 1970s. They were married for 25 years and had one other child, Trevor, who is seven years older than Morgan.
Morgan was 16 and a junior in high school when Liz died of ovarian cancer at age 49.
"With Trevor out of the house it was just me and my dad and our dog," Morgan said. "At first it was very difficult for both of us, especially to get along."
Virgil said members of the volleyball community rallied to help him and Morgan through the tough times. Mother figures emerged, but at the end of the day, it was Virgil and Morgan, learning to cope.
Sometimes they bickered, Morgan said, and sometimes when Virgil tried to coach her she didn't want to hear it. But their bond tightened and when it came time to choose a college, she was reluctant to leave Anchorage and her dad.
"When I moved into the dorms, I felt a little uncomfortable leaving him alone," she said.
Virgil and Liz met playing volleyball, and Liz was one of Morgan's first coaches. She was a longtime P.E. teacher at College Gate Elementary, which named its gym in her honor.
Morgan said not a day passes that she doesn't think about her mom.
"She's part of my pregame ritual," she said. "I have a cross on my necklace and I rub it and talk to her. … It gives me a little extra strength."
Being Virgil’s kid
Morgan started playing organized volleyball in the third grade and was coached by her dad until the day she joined the Seawolves. Going into her freshman year of high school, her dad put her on notice.
"I warned her I would be harder on her than the other kids around her, so the kids would understand I didn't favor her," Virgil said.
It helped that Morgan was so good there was no question she deserved to be on the varsity team, even though she was small by volleyball standards.
Her size dictated that she play setter or libero, and when she told her dad she didn't want to rotate out of the lineup in favor of taller girls more suitable for front-row play, Virgil told her she needed to be able to reach as high a 8 feet, 6 inches — 14 inches above the net — if she wanted to play all the way around.
Morgan took on the challenge. Buoyed by her soccer skills — she was a four-time all-state selection in high school soccer and turned down chances to play that sport in college — she worked on her jumping ability and is now one of UAA's top blockers.
Touching 8-6 proved easier than emerging from her identity as "Virgil's kid."
"That's what my name was for a long time," Morgan said. "I was Virgil's kid or the coach's kid. I was never Morgan. In high school it was really difficult because he didn't want to show any favoritism, so we butted heads a lot, kind of like I was proving to him I wanted to be out there."
Morgan plays with the intensity of someone still needing to prove herself. When a match gets close, her face turns to stone and she looks like she can lead her team through a rough spot by virtue of sheer will.
Determination is just part of the package. She has a big vertical jump, she can move her feet, she has good hands, she is creative. Once she was flat on her back and kept a ball in play by kicking it.
Never taking a play off
As a setter, Morgan touches the ball on almost every volley, an involvement that feeds her love of the game.
"Dictating what's going on on the court is what I really love," she said. "Controlling what (is) going on is really fun to do."
Her senior season has yielded impressive stats. Morgan averages 10.57 assists, 2.8 digs and 1.28 kills per set, and her .396 attack percentage is the best in the GNAC. For her career, she ranks third on UAA's all-time assists list with 3,671, third in career attack percentage (.307) and ninth in career aces (108).
Morgan thinks she'll wind up coaching — she is interested in working with adaptive athletes — but first she wants to chase her dream of playing professional volleyball in Europe.
But for now her mind is on the West Region tournament and trying to extend her college career another week or two. She's trying not to dwell on the fact this week will mark the last time she plays in front of a cheering hometown crowd that adores the way she plays volleyball.
And though he's on the bench and not in the bleachers, her dad is among her biggest fans.
"The greatest gift that she has that I'm most proud of is she just plays with passion all the time," Virgil said. "She never takes a play off, never takes a ball off. There's no lost effort.
"I'm proud that she plays that way and I'm also proud that she's gone out and done this on her own. I've given her the tools and the information, but a lot of kids you give them that and they get detoured.
"She's done it. She plays because she loves it. … I hope the rest of her journey will be as much fun as she's had thus far. Not as successful. As fun."