It was the night before the WPIAL championship volleyball match, and Mackenzie Voelker had no feeling in her right foot.
“I remember praying, ‘God, just let me be OK for this game,’” Voelker said. “He definitely came through for me because I didn’t feel anything.”
A few hours after that episode, Voelker racked up 23 kills against North Allegheny and was a big reason why the Lady Highlanders were crowned WPIAL Class AAA champions.
So it goes for Voelker.
Much of her junior season has been a balancing act between being counted on to score points for the undefeated Lady Highlanders, and managing her rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s joints, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
“This year has just been a roller coaster,” said the 16-year-old Voelker. “Sometimes I wake up and I can’t even move my foot. The next day I’m playing the best game of my life against NA.
“It’s just something I have to overcome in my life and it makes me stronger. Sometimes, you just have to push through it.”
What keeps Voelker going is a passion for the sport that runs in the family bloodline.
Her father, John, was a standout player at South Side High School and competed in numerous leagues around the city. He currently is the volleyball coach at St. Elizabeth Grade School, where Mackenzie began playing in fourth grade.
Voelker’s talent was obvious from the moment she stepped on the court, so she was moved up to play with the fifth graders. From that point until high school, Voelker’s talent had her playing ahead.
When she arrived at Baldwin, she became one of the few freshmen to crack the starting lineup.
Nothing — not even rheumatoid arthritis — has slowed her down.
“It’s extraordinary,” John Voelker said. “My wife (Michelle) and I, we just couldn’t be any more proud of her. We’ve always been proud of her, but this is like the icing on the cake.”
Voelker, a 5-foot-10 junior outside hitter, averaged 10 kills per match this season and paired with sophomore Maddi Sgattoni to form a formidable attack.
“(Voelker) has just been unbelievable this year,” Chris Kelly, Baldwin’s head coach, said.
Volleyball is a therapeutic endeavor for Voelker. She said the pain, which mainly affects her right big toe and foot, subsides once she gets on the court.
“I never have to talk myself into playing,” she said. “Sometimes, I have to do the opposite.”
If Voelker is going too hard, Kelly and his staff will remind her to take it easy.
“I’m so grateful for my coaches,” she said. “I just can’t say enough about them. They are so understanding about everything.”
Voelker said the medical staff at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh has given her their blessing to go out and play volleyball as long as she feels good. She made sure to ask not a moment after her diagnosis last December.
“I remember them telling me that (the diagnosis was rheumatoid arthritis), and all I said was, ‘When can I get back to volleyball?’” she said.
Ed Phillipps is a freelance writer.