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Caleb Turrentine / The Herald Elmore County’s Brianna Baker dives to hit the ball as Mirriam Foster (13) looks on.

Just before last week’s Class 4A Area 5 championship against Holtville, Elmore County’s Brianna Baker was getting in some last-minute stretches. There was a little bit of anguish in her face as she stretched her back but nothing was stopping her from getting on the court as the Panthers searched for their 10th consecutive area title.

Baker is no stranger to overcoming some pain throughout her volleyball career as she has dealt with major back problems her whole life. She was born with a condition called kyphosis, also called hunchback, and had a double-spinal fusion surgery at the age of 10.

However, she never thought that would keep her from playing volleyball.

“I never really thought too much about it,” Baker said. “I was always attracted to the game and I knew I would want to play. I think I’ve always been strong-minded and determined so I didn’t think it got in the way.”

Baker has played her entire volleyball career with two steel rods and eight screws in her back. However, she said it very rarely comes to mind when she is on the court.

“I do have to be mindful of it but I actually try to push past it,” Baker said. “(ECHS) coach (Kim) Moncrief can always tell if something is bothering me though and she’ll make sure I’m OK. There was a little bit of a scare earlier this season when I started having muscle spasms in the same spot on my spine but that has started to get better.”

Even when Baker was in more pain this year, she continued to work at practice before letting Moncrief know at the end of the day. Baker, who plays libero for the Panthers, said she knows her own limits but it can be difficult to walk off the court when the team needs her.

“Honestly, I don’t think about it as much as I should,” Moncrief said. “She never complains and she goes after everything she can get her hands on. She sacrifices her body to chase down balls and get it back in play. She’s such a team player.”

Due to her position, Baker is often the first line of defense and finds herself diving all over the court to keep points alive. She started her varsity career as a defensive specialist and moved to libero as a junior last year.

“She plays a pretty difficult position for that, hitting the floor all of the time. But she’s a tough, tough girl,” Moncrief said. “So I know if she says she’s hurting, she’s definitely hurting. She has overcome a lot.”

Baker said she believes she has overcome all of the obstacles that come with her back problems but there is still one that has been more difficult than others. She said the biggest issue has been the people who constantly tell her what she can’t do because of her condition.

Baker has proved those people wrong in a number of ways by being a key to the Panthers’ success while fighting through any of the pain that comes along.

“She is definitely one of our stronger leaders on the court,” Moncrief said. “She is an all-around athletic player and she works with the other girls to help them with coverages and making sure they are where they need to be on the court.”

Baker played in 84 of the 121 points in Elmore County’s super regional match against LAMP. She had seven digs but the Panthers fell in straight sets as Baker’s high school career came to an end.

“I’m so devastated it’s over,” Baker said. “There have been so many lessons I have learned here and coach Moncrief is more than just a coach or a teacher to me. Hopefully these are going to be relationships that will last my whole life.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.