By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO February 26, 2008 How does a girl who just barely tops 5’5” become one of the best volleyball players in a three-county area?
Polly Palhano has the skills to do so.
Last autumn, in her final season competing for the Monticello Lady Panthers’ volleyball team, Palhano was named the Orange County Interscholastic Athletic Association (OCIAA) Co-Player of the Year and selected as a Section IX First Team All-Star.
But she’s the first to admit with a shy grin and a shrug, “I’m not that tall!”
She’s well aware that playing volleyball in college will mean giving up one of her favorite parts of the game.
Palhano loves the thwack of her palm against the hollow leather ball.
She thrived under the coaching of Monticello’s long-time volleyball guru, Karen Atack, who’s put an emphasis on jumping into her practice routines making a girl who’s short by volleyball standards into someone who plays well at and above the net.
“When I play, I’m able to express all my feelings,” Palhano explained. “I can’t explain it . . . when I play I’m into the game.
“Nothing else matters,” she continued. “It’s a way to clear my mind.”
Born in Brazil, Palhano moved to Monticello when she was just 5 months old.
She split the first several years of her life between the two countries, before parents Tarcizo and Geralda made Monticello a permanent stop in time for their youngest child to attend kindergarten.
That’s where Polly learned English and settled into life as a kid in America.
Signs of her heritage are everywhere, from the decor in the family’s Monticello home to the Brazilian flag stuck to the rear door of Palhano’s Jeep.
Conversation inevitably turns to soccer or football as it’s termed by most people outside of America. She roots for Brazil, naturally, and argues gently with friends who cheer for France.
But given the choice between playing soccer in the fall or volleyball, Palhano’s decision was easy.
Her sister played volleyball for Monticello, and by seventh grade Palhano was growing out of the dance and gymnastics classes she’d been taking since she was 6 years old.
She signed on for a full host of athletics through the school volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter and track in the spring.
The latter came out of her love of dance. While watching the Olympics, she’d had the idea as a child that tackling the hurdles would be akin to leaping around a dance floor.
It couldn’t be farther from the truth, she admitted with a laugh. But she’s stuck with the hurdles, earning a distinction as a scholar athlete each track season, just as she has during volleyball and basketball seasons.
She’s been honored for basketball too. For example, Palhano was selected to the 2006-2007 Sullivan County Democrat All-Star Team.
But it’s volleyball where she’s really stood out, earning coach awards, Section IX and OCIAA Division All-Star accolades and being named Fourth Team All-State.
Each summer, Palhano has headed to camp to hone her spike and better her serve.
The past three years, she’s been playing on the court at the University of Miami one of a hand full of reasons the school is one of her top two choices for college.
She has until May 1 to make a decision between the home of the Hurricanes and the University of Tampa. With a large chunk of her family already living in Florida (including her sister), Palhano is looking forward to the move south.
Crucial to her decision is the ability to continue playing volleyball.
Her major will be sports medicine, with the long-term goal of becoming an athletic trainer at a university.
“I’ve always wanted to go into medicine, but I know I don’t want to give up sports,” Palhano explained. “This way I won’t have to give up sports, and I can still follow my dream to pursue medicine.”
She’s been talking to the coaches and players at the University of Miami, an NCAA Division I program. Palhano has been encouraged to try out to earn a walk-on position on the volleyball team.
She’s realistic about her chances. The school’s stature in the athletic community makes it harder to earn a slot, but she’s met several girls who tried out and became regular starters.
Palhano is also well aware that in college volleyball even the jumping skills she’s honed under Coach Atack won’t be enough to overcome her height.
If she makes it onto a team, she’ll be setting not hitting.
That’s enough, Palhano said, just to be involved in the game.
“I don’t think I would have been able to get through high school without sports,” Palhano admitted. “It’s the highlight of my day.”
A straight-A student, with a position as treasurer of the Monticello High School Athletic Association and involvement in the holiday food and toy drives, Palhano has had to put a little extra into everything she does to save the time for athletics.
Ironically, sports have helped her do that pushing her to better manage her time to complete her school work and leave time for practices and games.
“Ms. Atack was definitely a huge influence,” Palhano noted. “She doesn’t just teach us about sports; she’s trying to teach us life skills time management, respect . . .”
Atack cites Palhano as “a terrific student, player and athlete.
“She’s always the first to help out in any situation,” Atack noted. “First one with a card if someone is sick or hurt.”
Polite and goodnatured, it’s easy to see why this pride of the Lady Panthers earned the moniker “Pollyanna” from her parents.
The bright yellow smiley face on the back of her vehicle matches Palhano’s own grin wide and sincere.
At 17, about to graduate from Monticello High School and considering her college options, Palhano’s ready to jump off the precipice into the wide world beyond Monticello.
And she’s not afraid.
Her parents especially her dad, to whom she’s particularly close have always been boosting her up. With two aunts living in the house and uncles, aunts and cousins wandering out of the family home, Palhano said she’s a people person.
“I have a loud and obnoxious family,” she said with a laugh, “I’m always around people sometimes I feel like I have four moms!”
She considers her childhood in Monticello preparation for the world grounded in family life and spreading into school.
“Really what made growing up in Monticello so good is my friends,” she noted. “My teammates are like family.
“And it’s so diverse here; when I go to college, I’m not going to be in shock,” Palhano continued.
And when the going gets tough, she’ll head to the court, pound a few volleyballs and let the world slip away.