Kacey McCaw was a coach’s daughter who could tell you exactly where she and her teammates needed to be on the court at all times, those who knew her say, and Rhyan Prather was just like her mom — competitive, passionate and full of energy.
The two 12-year-old girls were spitting images of Lesley Prather and Carrie McCaw, their mothers, according to friends and fellow coaches. And the car crash that killed the four of them near St. Louis on Friday as they made their way to a tournament in Kansas City, Missouri, has left a void in Louisville’s vibrant volleyball community that crosses generations.
Preteen and teenage girls shouldn’t have to make the choice KIVA volleyball players and parents were faced with Friday night, coach Courtney Robison said.
“After the prayer service, we brought the girls together and the parents,” Robison said Saturday. “We told them it was their decision. We could absolutely pull them from the tournament tonight, and we could pull them from the tournament at any point.
“One of the little girls on our team just raised her hand and said, ‘I think that Rhyan and Kacey would want us there and want us to compete for them.’ And they all agreed. It was hard to swallow, as an adult, to hear 12-year-olds say that.”
Robison is a 27-year-old woman, but the 12-year-old girl she once was also felt the impact of the Valentine’s Day tragedy.
Louisville is a national volleyball hotbed that churns out college talent, and Robison, like many young athletes in Louisville, had once been coached by McCaw, 44, and Prather, 40, at KIVA (the Kentucky Indiana Volleyball Academy). Now, she was coaching their daughters.
Robison lost two role models on Friday, along with two girls who she had taken under her wing as a mentor. Like the rest of the city’s volleyball community, the crash left her empty, an opening no number of wins could fill.
“I looked up to them as moms and wives, and all these little girls looked up to them as role models, and here their daughters were the captains of the team and their teammates looked up to them,” Robison said. “It was just two generations that poured so much love and passion into the game.”
McCaw and Prather made their mark first. Prather, then known as Lesley Drury, was a star athlete at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville alongside her sister Sarah before going on to the University of Louisville, where she led the Cardinals to four NCAA Tournaments and a Sweet 16 from 1998-2001. McCaw, meanwhile, played high school volleyball at Assumption before joining the team at Syracuse.
Both found their way back to Louisville — Prather served as volleyball coach at IU Southeast from 2009-12 before joining the Louisville Fire Department — and both got involved as coaches with KIVA. They made an impact on young athletes from all over the city, teaching 10-year-olds the fundamentals of the game.
This weekend, KIVA coach Anne Kordes said, they were on their way to Kansas City as fans instead of coaches. Prather and McCaw were taking the trip west to watch the three-day tournament and their daughters, who had become close.
“Those two were two peas in a pod,” Kordes said about Rhyan and Kacey. “They’d be bringing this enthusiasm, this energy, this excitement over to compete and play, and they knew what was going on. They were just cute.”
The Louisville volleyball community is tight knit. Kordes was best friends with McCaw growing up and was a senior with the Cardinals when Prather was a freshman on the team. She coaches 17-year-old girls now with KIVA after spending 2011-16 as head coach at U of L, where Prather’s sister, Sarah, serves as director of operations. Kordes was in Kansas City over the weekend for the tournament as well.
Robison spent time at U of L with Katie George, who blossomed into a star at the university during Kordes’ time as coach and now works as a reporter for ESPN. In fact, McCaw, a Syracuse grad, introduced her to several people at the four-letter network during her time in Louisville. But before the bright lights and the cameras, George was a high schooler learning the game from Prather at KIVA.
George idolized Prather and her sister, Sarah, growing up — “they were just these gritty, ultra-competitive players and that was kind of what I wanted to emulate as I got older” — and got the chance to play for her when she was 17 at KIVA. Prather helped Louisville become a national volleyball hub, George said, and her loss will be felt on and off the court.
“This is such a big loss not just for the volleyball community but in general,” George said Saturday morning. “I don’t think people really understand how close-knit and widespread the volleyball community is in the city of Louisville and beyond, so when you lose one of your own, and quite frankly someone who helped build it and put it on the map like she did, this touches so many lives.”
As Louisville grieved Friday and Saturday, Kansas City and St. Louis, where another group of KIVA teams was playing, grieved as well.
Parents and kids in both cities heard about the crash Friday afternoon, Robison said. They held separate vigils at their hotels, where the 12-year-old girls were joined by older players to pray and share their favorite memories of their friends.
They chose to keep playing, and they chose to play for their teammates — players wrote No. 14 and “Rhyan” on their left shoe, Robison said, in honor of Prather’s left-handed daughter, and then wrote No. 22 and “Kacey” on their right shoe. Other teams have joined in with ribbons, tape and other gestures of solidarity.
The team Kacey and Rhyan were on, 12 Red, went undefeated Saturday, and Robison said they planned to keep playing until the tournament ends on Monday. It’s what the girls would have wanted, Kacey’s father told Kordes on Friday, and it’s what the players wanted to do.
You can feel where they would have been on the floor, though. Rhyan played with “a ton of fire on the court, a lot of sass, just like her mom,” Robison said, and Kacey, like her mother, was like another coach directing the team.
For so many reasons, 12 Red’s rotation wasn’t the same without them.
“It’s funny,” Robison said Saturday. “The girls this morning, when the team decided they wanted to play out here in Kansas City, one of them said, ‘Who’s going to tell us where to go? That’s what Kacey always did.’
“I just tried not to cry in front of them. I said, ‘Somebody else is going to have to do it now.’”