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Unique setter Jaden Polovina raises the bar for Crowley volleyball

Polovina was born with deformities in her hands and has nine fingers, but the Crowley senior has learned to adapt on the volleyball court. (Marshall Gardner/Cowtown Images)

Ask anyone who knows her best — Jaden Polovina is exceptional.

A 5-foot-9 star setter at Crowley High School (Texas), Polovina has been the heart and soul for an Eagles volleyball team that’s off to a 19-11 start in 2022, amassing a team-leading 844 assists along the way. She’s one of two seniors for Crowley and has been a captain the last two seasons, a credit to the tireless work ethic she brings to everything she does.

But perhaps what makes Jaden most unique are the very hands she uses to set the ball.

Polovina was born with deformities in her hands. She has nine fingers. Her two pointer fingers are bent, neither of her thumbs have joints and her left hand has a middle finger and a ring finger that are conjoined into one.

At a young age, Polovina quickly learned to adapt and was rather oblivious to the fact that her hands were different from everyone else’s.

“I just thought, ‘I’m me,’ and I dealt with it in my own way,” she said. “I’ve never known what it’s like to have 10 fingers, so everything I did, I was just kind of learning like a regular child. With my fingers, it didn’t really bother me much. I just never really paid attention to them.

“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal because I’ve never known any other way on how to deal with my fingers.”

Polovina was about 7 years old when she first began playing volleyball. Her parents wanted her to be involved in a sport of some sort, so after gauging her interest in softball, soccer, basketball and dance, Polovina began playing volleyball on a YMCA team.

“We were called the Rainbow Ballers, it was the cutest thing ever,” Polovina said. “I was a [defensive specialist] on that team. When you’re 7, you don’t really have a position, but I was a DS.”

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Polovina is one of two seniors for Crowley and has been a captain the last two seasons. (Marshall Gardner/Cowtown Images)

By the age of 13, Polovina had been exposed to volleyball only through her YMCA and school teams. One day, a suggestion by her coaches to join a club program piqued her interest. Polovina and her parents were unfamiliar with the club scene, but they found DFW Elite and decided to have her try out. She was in tears when she discovered she’d made the top team as a defensive specialist.

“On the team, we had one setter, and they were like, ‘We need a backup setter,’” Polovina said. “They picked me because I had the second-best hands.

“I was cool with it. I mean, I’ll play whatever position they need me to. That year, I played backup setter. The next year, I played starting setter, and I just kind of kept setting because people needed me to. And then I started to actually love it.”

Polovina was a freshman when she first met Crowley head coach Catherine Bruder. In search of setters for the team, Bruder asked if anybody could set. Polovina raised her hand.

It wasn’t until the Eagles were a little way into the season that Bruder first realized Polovina’s hands were different, when an assistant coach made a comment that they couldn’t understand how she set so well with her hands the way they were.

“We go to games. We do everything, and then after games, referees and coaches are like, ‘Your setter is phenomenal.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, she only has nine fingers,’” Bruder said. “They’re like, ‘What?’ Nobody notices because she’s just so talented. You never notice that there was ever an issue for her.”

Setting certainly required some adjustments on Polovina’s part during her younger years. She had to learn to avoid being called for a double hit because certain fingers would often get in the way. Her super digit, the big finger on her left hand, would sometimes fall into the palm of her hand, or another finger would simply slip because of how it bent.

But over time, she managed to learn her way around the ball.

“I kept doing wall work with the ball — what they call it is wall-balling — and I kept setting,” Polovina said. “I just found a natural feel around the ball with my fingers, and now it’s very rare that I double.

“Something I do now that I didn’t notice, my club coach pointed out, is I’ll drop one of my pinkie fingers on my right hand so that I have four fingers on both hands, so I basically set with eight fingers just to even it out.”

Of course, Polovina has heard it all from those who’d rather tear her down than build her up. Growing up, bullies would call her “alien fingers” or make rude comments about the appearance of her hands, but it never seemed to affect her.

“I can appreciate how nice she is and how kind she is to people and how accepting she is to people, even when I know that people may have not always been that way to her in her earlier life,” Bruder said.

Most people don’t even notice. In fact, some of her teammates — people she’d been playing alongside for more than three years — just found out this year that her right hand was also deformed.

“People don’t tend to notice, but when they do, they’ll usually just ask questions or they won’t say anything,” Polovina said. “If you ask questions and it comes off disrespectful, I’m not really bothered by it. I’m not really bothered by my hands in general. I don’t know why, but I’m just confident in my hands.”

While most of her teammates, coaches and friends have been supportive, Polovina recalls one instance along the way when a trusted adult told her she wouldn’t play in college as a setter and should instead go as a right-side hitter. It didn’t make her sad but instead fueled her desire to prove them wrong.

And she did.

In July, Polovina committed to continue her playing career at the NAIA level with McPherson College in Kansas. During the recruiting phase, she was contacted by head coach Cory Cahill, who invited her to come for a visit and observed as she practiced setting and hitting. When Polovina was done that day, Cahill pulled her aside and offered her a scholarship.

Polovina was impressed with the entire McPherson coaching staff and the positivity with which they coached. She also likes that the campus is not too far from Crowley — about a six-hour drive — and that she’ll be able to have some independence.

“I’ve heard that being on big campuses, people start feeling alone because there’s so many people, so I’m choosing the smaller campus life,” said Polovina, who plans to pursue a business degree. “Overall, I have a great coach. I’m going to have a great team.

“Also, the freakin’ McPherson uniforms are so cute.”

For now, though, Polovina is focused on finishing her high school career on a high note, with hopes of getting to the postseason to give her coach the send-off she deserves.

In May 2021, Bruder was diagnosed with cancer. Not wanting to cause her players unwanted stress, she waited before letting them know at the end of the school year. That way, she figured, they had the summer to process it.

Earlier this season, Crowley squared off against Burleson, a rival school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and it was the first time an opposing team had shown support for Bruder. There were “Battle For Bruder” shirts that were made, and people brought flowers to lend their support.

Burleson won 3-2 in what Polovina says was “a very emotional game.”

“We were so close,” Polovina said. “I was so distraught after that game because we all wanted to win for her. Everyone was bawling in the locker room beforehand. We were so driven.

“We’re pretty much playing this season for her. It’s all about Bruder, nothing else.”

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Polovina and her teammates wear shirts in support of Crowley coach Catherine Bruder. (Photo provided by Jaden Polovina)

Bruder has publicly stated that this will be her final season coaching at Crowley, but with six juniors on this year’s roster who don’t want a new coach for their senior year, she’s beginning to consider coming back for one more run.

“I’m really tired, but I also don’t want to possibly ruin their senior year,” said Bruder, who’s in her seventh year as Crowley’s coach. “I definitely don’t want to do it again, however you kind of have to do things you don’t want to do sometimes just to make sure that everybody else is taken care of.”

Polovina will wrap up her prep volleyball career this fall before resuming her role as the starting goalie on the soccer team in the winter. She’s a multi-sport athlete at Crowley who has also been involved with the track and field and cross country teams.

“She wants to play and do everything and be the best at whatever she’s in at the time,” Bruder said. “Really, skill-wise, she’s always coming back and doing things better than what she was before.”

Polovina’s work ethic is what sets her apart as a team captain. Always hustling in practice and never ready to quit, she’s a perfectionist, almost to a fault. But Bruder has seen her mature in that regard over the years, and learn to accept that not everything will always go according to plan.

All the while, Polovina continues to develop as a player and never makes excuses for the hands she’s grown to embrace.

“She’s always been a person who finishes everything,” Bruder said. “She doesn’t cheat at workouts. She doesn’t walk in practice. She’s always trying to be better all the time. She wants to learn. She wants that knowledge. She wants to be challenged.

“She’s basically the ideal athlete.”

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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