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Firethorne signs to play volleyball at Central Washington
LANGLEY — With papers laid out before her, Linden Firethorne realized she was in a moment that two years ago didn’t seem possible.
The South Whidbey senior was prepared to sign paperwork to attend Central Washington University on an athletic scholarship. Firethorne, a middle hitter, will be a member of the Division II Wildcat volleyball team next fall.
“I didn’t really think I was going to play in college, until last year at some tournaments a bunch of coaches came and were watching me and stuff,” Firethorne said. “Some of them were from bigger schools and some of them were schools in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but I didn’t want to go that far.”
After she signed, her mom Aristana Firethorne recalled a moment when her daughter was in middle school. Firethorne told her mom she thought she could play sports in college. With her letter of intent and other paperwork signed, the former dream was only months from being reality.
“I’m really proud that she found that dream and stuck with it,” her mom said.
Firethorne may have doubted her chance to play collegiate volleyball, but her high school coach Mandy Jones knew she could.
“I knew it was possible her sophomore year,” Jones said. “I knew that she was going to go far. I saw it then, and then it just progressed into her junior year.”
“Then by this year, it was a no-brainer,” she added.
Quality of the coaching staff and Central Washington’s location were key factors to her choice. Head coach Mario Andaya has led the Wildcats for 16 years and assistant coach Chloe Solum is in her third year with Central Washington.
“I definitely wanted to stay in the state but I didn’t want to play small, so a D-II school seemed kind of perfect,” Firethorne said. “They seem like they know what they’re doing.”
Staying close to home is just fine with her mom. She goes to almost every match — home and away, high school and club team — and her daughter’s choice to stay in Washington will allow her to see some matches.
Aristana Firethorne complimented the coaches’ for their demeanor and trustability and likened it to a family.
“I feel absolutely comfortable and confident entrusting my daughter to them,” she said. “It feels like she’s already part of a family.”
“She’s had a lot of interest from colleges over the last couple of years,” her mom added. “We’re just thrilled that she’s chosen to stay in the state and that I’ll get to continue my opportunities to come see her at every single game that I can.”
The athlete’s assessment of the coaching staff, particularly Andaya and Solum was similar.
“They are like the sweetest people I’ve ever met,” Firethorne said.
Jones, who is in her fifth year as the Falcons’ head coach, extolled Firethorne’s talents. This is the first time Jones had a player sign with a D-II school.
“I am so happy for her and so proud of her,” Jones said. “She deserves to be recognized for that at such a great university as Central. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds for her.”
“They are very, very lucky to have her,” Jones added.
The Wildcats have a larger roster than Firethorne has seen in her club play or with the Falcons. There are 19 players on the college’s current team, including nine freshmen and only two seniors.
Central Washington will welcome a large incoming class next year, too, which led Firethorne to keep using a redshirt and sitting out next season as an option.
“I think it will be kind of different, because I’m used to playing,” Firethorne said. “I haven’t decided yet, but I might redshirt and not play at all my freshman year.”
“It will be a lot more fighting for your position, which I like because I like the competition,” she added.
Her decision to play for Central Washington was made in June, but she had to wait until the fall signing period to make it official. After seeing the Wildcats play two matches and visiting the campus, Firethorne knew she wanted to be a Wildcat. The combination of its proximity to Whidbey, the coaches, the players and the school size made Central Washington the right choice for her.
Just because she’s a scholarship athlete doesn’t mean the novelty has worn off. Firethorne is still surprised and blushes a little when describing how the college recruiting began.
“I didn’t really expect it to be like, me. I’d be playing in tournaments with thousands of girls and I’d expect them to go talk to girls on other courts.”
“Then it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh. Me? Yeah, I can do it. I can play well tomorrow.’”
Firethorne said she will likely become a blocker, after being primarily a hitter for six years.
The change will be easy, though, as she focused on improving her blocking this season. Jones said Firethorne’s transition will be seamless.
“She’s improved on reading the hitters, tracking the hitters and her form in blocking is just perfect,” Jones said. “She has height, she has long arms, she can jump up over the net. She rarely makes net errors.”
“She is a universal player — she can play any position,” Jones added. “She has amazing hands, she can play defense, she can hit any ball set to her. That’s why I was so lucky to have her, because she could hit anything.”
The Wildcats are 14-11 overall this season (8-9 in Great Northwest Athletic Conference matches), which puts them in sixth place with one match remaining this season. South Whidbey finished its season 9-5 in the Cascade Conference and 10-7 overall, including a District 1 tournament run that ended in a winner-to-state elimination match.