“Some Things are Bigger than Wins and Losses.” The Story of Legally Blind Mead Senior Captain Ana Leise
MEAD – Ana Leise made quite a scene at dinner Saturday night.
Maybe that’s not unusual for a teenage girl, but in this case, it was for a good reason.
“(Going to state) has always been a dream. When I found out, I was eating at Applebee’s and I literally dropped my phone and started balling instantly. That’s how happy I was,” Leise said before Mead’s practice Monday afternoon.
Mead’s journey to the state tournament was a little different than everyone else’s. After the Raiders lost to Exeter-Milligan in the Class D2-2 subdistrict finals on Halloween night, Mead had to wait until late Saturday night to find out if it would get one of the two wild card spots available in D-2. As it turned out, the Raiders needed Archbishop Bergan to win its Class C-2 substate match in order to get that wild card.
As Leise watched her phone for updates, Bergan won its match and clinched its own berth in the state tournament while at the same time sending Mead on to state as well.
“It was crazy,” Leise said. “From (the loss against Exeter-Milligan on Tuesday) until Saturday night my stomach was sick. When the (Bergan-Sandy Creek) game started I was literally shaking and I wasn’t even there.”
Those are the sort of things that happen when you fall in love with a sport at a young age and put in the work with your teammates to achieve a common goal.
For Leise, it started in third grade when she and several of her fellow Mead seniors formed a team to play in a league in Wahoo.
“At first, I honestly didn’t think I would like it. I didn’t know anything about volleyball and I didn’t know what I was doing at all, but everyone was showing me and helping me and it just clicked,” she said. “I fell in love with it.”
Leise continued playing youth volleyball through grade school. It was in sixth grade, however, that the peppy and diminutive girl got news that would impact her forever.
She was diagnosed with Retinitis pigmentosa – a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment through progressively worsening degeneration of cells in the retina.
“My peripheral vision is tunneling in. It’s just, like, eating away at itself. So, eventually, it will be like I’m looking through straws. Well, I guess I could eventually go blind but they say there is going to be a cure before I go blind,” Leise said.
“I can see your face right now,” she said as we talked, “but if you were to hold your arm out, I would probably be able to see your hand but not your arm. It’s like I have rings of vision.”
So, I stuck my arm out and asked her what she saw.
“Well…….I can see your shoulder,” she said with a laugh “I know your arm and hand are supposed to be there. It’s weird because I can’t see your hand, but I can see there is someone (a teammate off to the side) standing here. It’s just missing. It’s not even black, it’s just missing.”
Despite the diagnosis, Leise refused to believe it was true and she didn’t even tell some of her best friends about it until eighth and ninth grade. It was about then that one of the conditions of Retinitis pigmentosa started to kick-in – the night blindness.
Then came the real bombshell when she saw her specialist in Iowa City. Doctors told her she was legally blind.
“Then I got to 15 and I lost a lot of vision from the year before at that eye appointment and they told me that I wouldn’t be able to drive. That was probably the worst eye appointment I have ever been to,” she said. “I remember screaming and yelling and being so upset and balling my eyes out. I just wanted to be normal like everyone else. The fact that I wasn’t going to be able to drive was really the first thing that made me different from everyone else.”
Her vision continues to get worse each year, but Mead coach Keshia Havelka has refused to let it keep Leise from making an impact on her volleyball program. As a junior last year Leise played in 40 sets and had 14 service aces and 15 digs.
Even though her vision has gotten worse in the last year, Havelka continues to use Leise as often as she can. Even though Leise admitted she loses sight of the ball when tossing it for her serve, she has still seven aces this year, including two in a big win over Clarkson-Leigh. In a 3-1 win over Yutan, Leise was 19-of-21 serving with an ace and three digs.
“She has put so much into this program over the four years that in my mind she deserves to letter like her teammates. Her impact is small in games but huge in the practice gym,” Havelka said. “She has been consistent in showing up in the offseason and in the weight room. She understands that when the game gets tight she may not check in when she had been early in the set.
“The last two years for me I have seen it impact her a bit more. I think she also has become more upfront to me about her limitations as well. We have worked on her base positioning to see as much of the court as possible to limit the areas she can’t see. Her biggest struggles are the high free balls or shanked passes from our own team.”
Leise is a captain for the Raiders and Havelka said it’s because of all the intangibles she brings to the team.
“Her attitude. Her persistence. Her ability to manage something that most of us couldn’t deal with and still have a smile on her face every day. Watching her be a captain this year and excel it that role as been one of the brightest parts of the season,” Havelka said. “I have listened to her motivate players that are about to get subbed in (over her), helped those who got subbed out, and become vocal (motivational and stern) at those older players that need to step up for us late in the game.”
Havelka said even she has learned from watching Leise.
“I have learned to never underestimate a player. Even through all of this Ana has become a much better player,” Havelka said. “I also have learned some things are bigger than wins or losses. I am so proud of Ana and all she has done this year and the previous three. She never once gave up and has never once used her loss of sight as an excuse.”
This weekend will mark the end of Leise’s volleyball career but she said she can’t imagine any better feeling than playing with her teammates in one last tournament.
“I’m spending time with my friends and it’s somewhere that I want to be. It’s something I love doing no matter how hard it gets,” she said. “I just love doing it and I love having a team that I can help motivate and help push to be better.”