Long before she was a hitting machine for Tulane University, a big, blasting outside who was last week’s Conference USA player of the week, Cori Martone was a skinny middle who often teared up when she made a mistake.
I know, because it was my job to keep her from crying.
At 5’6” and perhaps 95 pounds, Cori was the starting middle on our Volleyball Baton Rouge 14s team, a first-year player who was so slight that her biker tights looked more like looses. But the kid could jump higher than most and was so coachable and likeable and you just knew that if she one day got her dad’s height and her mother’s muscular body she would be a star.
That’s why my wife and our head coach, Brenda LeBlanc, put Cori in the lineup from day one. Jump and block, she told her. When she told her to tip on the first play coming out of timeout, Cori would, the ball would go to the floor and the kid would just beam.
Me, I was the serve caller who would have to call out to her after an error and tell her it was OK and to take a breath or smile and move on. And she would fight back the tears and shake her head and then go block a ball and start smiling again.
At St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge, Cori was a key cog on a team that won three consecutive high school state titles in Louisiana’s largest division and was MVP of the state her junior and senior years.
But even though she was also having a good club career, no one offered her early. Finally Tulane did so after her junior year in high school.
“I knew I would be close to home, still in Louisiana, I’d be around familiar faces and that’s all I really cared about,” she said, “and it’s worked out for the best.”
It certainly did from the start. She was the Conference USA freshman of the year in 2010, ranked 20th in the league in points per set (3.01), was second on Tulane’s team with 84 blocks and third on the team in kills (725) and hitting percentage (.187).
Last year, she made the C-USA second team after a season in which she led the Green Wave in kills (376) and was second in hitting (.201). No longer was she that little, skinny kid. Cori is now a quarter-inch under 6 feet and as solid as any athlete you want to meet.
“We recruited her as a middle,” Tulane coach Sinisa Momic said. “She was a little undersized as a middle, but was very explosive when she was hitting. I also saw reflexes and defense from the start. Eventually she would end up as an outside for us when we recruited bigger middles.”
He made the move last season.
“Our passing wasn’t working, we didn’t have a terminator on the left side, and I told Cori this is what I thought her position should be on a higher level and that’s how it started,” Momic said. “Only now is she coming up to that level of consistency where she can pass, block, hit and hit back row. It’s coming together nicely. This is the first time it’s all that consistent.”
Cori knew it was the right move.
“I loved middle. I got freshman conference player of the year as a middle,” she said. “But I wanted to play defense and play all the way around. So I was excited about that, but it was definitely out of my comfort zone. It wasn’t very successful in the beginning.
“I don’t know how I got to feeling comfortable outside. It just kind of happened.”
Her setter, Mel Mandelbaum, a junior from Clovis, Calif., said continuing the connection from middle to outside went smoothly.
“She jumps well and that helps her a lot,” Mandelbaum said. “In the middle we connected from day one. She’s easy to set because she’ll adjust.”
Cori and Mandelbaum are Tulane’s captains this season. Although the team is struggling—after losing to Central Florida this past Sunday the Green Wave fell to 3-11 overall and 1-2 in C-USA—Cori leads Tulane in many statistical categories.
She’s first in kills (235), aces (19), and digs (178) and has taken 168 more swings than her next closest teammate, sophomore Grace Weaver, an outside hitter from Belton, Texas, near Houston.
“Cori has no fear and is always a presence on the court,” Weaver said. “When she’s not there we can get panicked because she’s someone everyone looks to for leadership. And off the court she’s the funniest person I’ve ever met. She’s a great person on and off the court.”
A good example of Cori’s humor was her Facebook page last year. Photos went into an album called “14th grade.”
“And I made it to 15th,” she cracked.
I had my doubts. During her freshman year we had a conversation where I reminded her that letting her academics lapse would put her in a junior college.
She laughed at the memory.
“I’m not at a junior college yet,” she said, although last spring Momic yanked her from practice for a week so she would hit the books.
“College has been difficult and it’s difficult to manage your time with sports and school,” said Cori, a communications major. “And me being a person who would rather play volleyball 24-7, my grades reflect that, but I’m working on them.”
Last spring she also got to play in the sand for the first time as Tulane competed in that sport on the varsity level. Her partner was Weaver.
“She was always just a power hitter and the sand made her think about roll shots and placing the ball instead of just going up and banging,” Weaver said. “She’s a smarter hitter.”
On the indoor court for under-sized Tulane, she’s the team’s big banger.
“She takes on the role of heavy hitter because thats what she needs to do, but this year she’s worked in more shots,” Mandelbaum said.
“It’s taken me long enough, but I’m starting to see the mental side of the game and how important it is,” Cori said.
“The most simple drills that Coach asks us to do are the most important. And you never really think that passing 500 balls against a wall is going to translate into a game, but you start to see that your zero serve-receive errors instead of one or two and those 500 passing reps was the difference.”
“It’s different than having someone serve to you. You have to focus the entire time.”
In Tulane’s home tournament September 15-16, Cori had 63 kills, four aces and five blocks in three matches.
“I want every single week to be my week. When I heard (about being named player of the week), I just started bawling crying because all that hard work is paying off,” Cori said. “I had to leave the cafeteria. It’s an emotional thing to be recognized for what you love.”
She followed that up with 24 kills and 16 digs this past Friday in a loss at Southern Miss, and then had an off day in a home loss Sunday to Central Florida. She had 15 kills, but that was negated by 11 hitting errors.
After the match we got to visit. (This would be a really smart time to mention and also get the bonus points from my wife that Brenda played at Tulane and was a four-year starter. She left in 1981 as the school’s all-time kills leader, hitting a pretty remarkable .412 her senior year.) She thanked us over and over for coming to watch her and apologized for playing poorly and losing. Brenda would have none of it, letting her know how proud we are of her and much we appreciated watching her play.
And I thanked her for not crying.