FARGO-Central Cass freshman Rylee Goettle has one dig in her varsity volleyball career. That will be the only statistic she ever gets.
On Thursday, at the North Dakota Class B volleyball tournament at the Fargodome, Goettle was led out to the court during introductions by her older sister Dallas. With sunglasses in her hand, an eye patch over her left eye, and some blurry vision in her right eye, Goettle didn't have much depth perception. Her teammates held her hand in line as starters were introduced. She couldn't embrace the bright lights.
If a volleyball hit her left eye, she could go blind, but Goettle had made it to the state tournament, a dream of hers since she started playing volleyball in first grade.
"I'll just have to fall in love with other things," Goettle said.
Last Thursday, Central Cass won a Region 1 championship. The Squirrels were going to the Class B state tournament. Goettle arrived home happy and her mother and grandmother let her celebrate a bit before sitting her down and telling her that her grandfather had died that night.
The next day, Goettle went in for a scheduled eye doctor appointment. Since sixth grade, she had seen floaters, which are shadows on the retina. Lately, she had been seeing multiple floaters for three minutes every hour. The ophthalmologist said she needed emergency eye surgery for a tear and partial detachment in the retina of her left eye.
Due to blindness being a risk of contact with her eye or head, sports were no longer an option for Rylee. Her new basketball shoes had just arrived, and on Monday she was supposed to have an appointment with an NCAA recruiting website to set up her profile for volleyball.
"My wife and wife's mom helped her celebrate and then they proceeded to break her heart," said Rylee's father, Bob Goettle. "She goes into the eye doctor, they tell her she needs surgery, and her broken heart got shattered into pieces."
Rylee never wanted to make it about her.
"It's definitely been an emotional rollercoaster," Rylee said. "I've tried to stay strong for my family because I know grandpa touched everyone's hearts in our family and I didn't want it to be about me. I never want it to be about me. I just tried to put on the best face I could and keep going through it.
"The state tournament is not about me. It's about my team and how they do in their journey."
Surprise for state
Rylee's father, Bob, who had the same eye problem in the same eye in November of his freshman year of high school, had always joked Rylee would take all the shingles off the garage from serving the ball against the garage door. Rylee was at all of her older sister's basketball and volleyball games, off to the side playing with a volleyball or basketball of her own. Volleyball was her first love, though.
"I loved everything about volleyball," Rylee said. "Getting to play it and being surrounded by a bunch of teammates and the competitiveness, that's what I loved the most.
"Hearing the news for the first time, it did shatter my heart into pieces. I cried for a little bit, but then I said, 'No. I need to stop crying because I'm just glad I got to be able to try it, unlike some people.'"
The doctors originally told Rylee attending the state tournament was not an option because of the lights and volleyballs flying around.
"Our athletes know nothing can be taken for granted," said Central Cass coach Nikki Nelson. "Rylee will not be playing at the state tournament, but she will be with us in our hearts. The entire team, from freshmen through seniors, has shown support of Rylee and will always be cheering her on."
The night before the state tournament, the entire Central Cass team visited Rylee and asked if she would like to be introduced with the team at the Fargodome on Thursday. She turned to her dad and asked if her doctor had cleared it. Bob had cleared it with the doctor that day.
"Hearing that it was cleared, and all these people were trying to get me there was the highlight of my day," Rylee said.
Her vision has altered her life, but Rylee already has her sights set on different goals. She sees coaching in her future.
"When things are going rough and it's tough to put your head up and keep on going, keep taking that first step, even if it seems impossible," Rylee said. "Put your head up and keep moving on."