Long before she became a member of the Norcross volleyball team, Bella Murray spent countless afternoons at the high school’s practices.
As an elementary-schooler, she literally and figuratively looked up to the Blue Devils’ players who were working with her mother Karen, a Norcross assistant coach since 2009.
“I’ve been in this gym since I was 4 years old,” Murray said. “After elementary school, I would take the bus here for all the kids whose parents teach here. Practices were still going on, so I would watch practices, help shag balls. I’ve pretty much just grown up in this gym. It’s really amazing just watching everybody shift through, everybody I looked up to because I knew I wanted to play when I got here.”
Now younger Norcross players, literally and figuratively, look up to Murray. The senior is a a returning all-state player and has been the Blue Devils’ tallest player — 6-foot-4 in shoes, 6-2 without — the past three seasons.
“Bella grew up in this gym,” Norcross head coach Jeff Cerneka said. “She has always had a volleyball in her hands. That passion for the game is deep-rooted. And she loves Norcross volleyball. In addition to everything volleyball, I’ve had the pleasure of watching her grow into a great person who is smart, kind, caring, she’s tough, and she’s funny. Sarcasm is her game. She is a multiplier. She has a contagious personality and has the ability to make everyone around her better. All of those traits from a leader in the program translates into having a positive culture within our program, and one that we’re all proud of.”
Volleyball was Murray’s sport of choice from an early age after picking it up from her parents, who met at an adult volleyball tournament in Boston. Karen played in college, was previously head coach at Merrimack College and has coached for years in Georgia, where the family settled before Murray was born.
“Volleyball’s pretty much in my blood,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine it any other way. Ever since I was little, I would have a ball around in my house. I would be rolling it or playing catch with myself.”
Before she was old enough for the league, Murray watched her mother’s teams at Peachtree Corners Baptist Church (her mother has been a volunteer coach there since 2007). She joined the teams there during her elementary school years, then joined the first Pinckneyville Middle team as a sixth-grader. She joined A5 Gwinnett as a 13-year-old, and regularly played up in older age groups.
Her mother’s tutelage also fueled her unique skill set. A player of Murray’s height is often shifted closer to the net from an early age, but her mother worked with her as a setter, the position she still plays — and will play at the college level (Winthrop is among her current favorites). It surprises Norcross’ opponents that its tallest player is the setter, unless they know of Murray and her talents.
“It was definitely more abnormal (to have a tall setter) when I was in middle school playing for the middle school team because usually at the time the tallest person is in the middle or a hitter,” Murray said. “My mom wanted me to be a setter because the mindset she had is that the setter can do everything. Especially since I’m so tall she taught me how to hit, too, so I can play front row. She taught me how to be a setter and we have a family friend Sammie Baker, she played here (as setter). She was one of my dear friends growing up and just watching her play was great. The main reason I’m still a setter and not just shifting over to hitter because I’m so tall is because of her.”
Murray has done her job well — she had 945 assists and 202 digs last season, and is up to 2,039 career assists — but she does much more for a team that went 39-8 last season and reached the Class AAAAAAA Elite Eight. She also had 146 kills and 41 blocks.
“Bella will do whatever it takes to push our team over the top, a great set, a dump, a timely kill,” Cerneka said. “But what makes her special are the intangible traits she possesses, like offering an encouraging word to a struggling teammate, being calm in a chaos moment, constantly pushing the team to be ultra competitive, and she goes out of her way to develop relationships with everyone on her team on and off the floor. She embraces the leadership role and simply loves helping her teammates. Our whole program is better because Bella is leading the way.”
Murray, like other athletes, has dealt with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic since March. Her club season was limited to three tournaments, and a good portion of her training for awhile was solo work.
“We had months off and I needed to get some touches, so I had volleyballs in my room and I would set to myself,” Murray said. “My dad (Brian) built me a shelf but instead of a wood bottom there’s a net on it, so I keep volleyballs in there. I just set to myself in my room sometimes. I play in my garage. I played with my parents since both of them played when they were younger. I’ve just been trying to keep myself sharp. I try to play with my friends a lot. I try to teach them to play with me, so we play beach a lot together.”
When gyms opened back up this summer, Murray and the Blue Devils went back to work in a safe environment. Players are screened at the entrance, where their temperature is taken, and thorough cleanings of the volleyball equipment happens before and after practice with their coaches, who wear masks.
It’s a different way to start the season, but the results on the court have looked promising so far.
“I think we’re going to do really well,” Murray said. “I think we have a lot of chemistry because we have eight returners. With the new people coming on the team, all of us know each other from either school or just practicing with them last season or just being friends with them before we played volleyball. Because we have a lot of chemistry and everybody wants to be there, it’s great. … Everybody wants to have a good time and win not just for ourselves but for each other.”
Now she just hopes the governing bodies and the coronavirus allow the season to happen. Senior seasons mean so much to high school athletes, particularly ones who have been in their high school gyms since elementary school and have dreamed so long of high school athletics.
“I’ve seen a lot of people just get shut down and I really don’t want that to happen,” Murray said. “I’ve watched so many people go through their senior season and they get so emotional. They get to have it and have their banquets. It’s emotional at every single banquet, every one. For me, I would just be eternally crushed if i didn’t get my senior season because I’ve been in the program so long. I’m confident if we do get our senior season we will do very well. I am not so confident if we will actually get it. But I am hopeful.”