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Student, former teacher battle for time

Senior Marina Mercer, standing second from right, will battle sophomore Cat Highmark, who she once coached, for playing time at setter this season.(Matt Pavelek | The State Press)

As the ASU volleyball team prepares to enter conference play in two weeks, the setter position has been rotated evenly between sophomore Katie Crosby, sophomore Cat Highmark and senior Marina Mercer.

Mercer entered the 2009 season third all-time in assists at ASU, while Highmark is a highly touted transfer from Long Beach State who could unseat Mercer from the starting setter position that she has held for three straight years.

But this is not an ordinary position battle.

Mercer was a coach of Highmark’s several years ago and taught her how to set.

They kept in touch over the years, and it was Mercer who encouraged Highmark to transfer to ASU last year.

Now, the teacher finds herself competing with the student, but their friendship has never been stronger.

“We always say, ‘Whoever plays, plays,’ and we’re always going to compete for the position,” Highmark said. “But our friendship stays the same, and [no matter who’s] on the court, we’re rooting for each other.”

Mercer was a freshman setter at ASU when she first met the then-15-year-old Highmark. Mercer was helping as an assistant coach for a club volleyball team in the Valley called Club Red Volleyball when a man named Dave Highmark, who was interested in getting lessons for his daughter to help her learn how to set, approached her.

“She had always hit before, and they wanted her to set,” Mercer said.

“Her and her dad asked me if I could start spending some extra time in the gym with her, working on her hands. That’s when it all began — our beautiful friendship.”

Mercer knew right away that Highmark was different than other girls she coached.

“When I first saw her, she was really thin, so I was like, ‘This girl is really scrawny,’” Mercer said with a chuckle. “Then, when she started jumping, she was more athletic than she appeared to me at age 15 and a half. It really impressed me how hard she worked. Normally, when I do private lessons with girls, their attention spans are very short, and I can only get a good solid 45 minutes in. Cat was so focused and so dedicated, sometimes we could go an hour and a half, easy.”

Mercer’s lessons paid off, as Highmark became a high school All-American setter at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale and was named the Gatorade Arizona High School Player of the Year in 2008.

“She taught me to be aggressive on the court and to talk to your players, because it’s your relationship between your hitters and you that’s important,” Highmark said. “To get the best out of them and to get the best out of you, you have to talk to them.”

Highmark graduated high school a semester early and moved to southern California to play with the club that serves as a pipeline to Long Beach State.

But during her freshman year at LBSU, Highmark decided that she wanted to transfer, so she called her old coach and friend.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you think about ASU?’” Mercer recalled. “She said, ‘They don’t need a setter,’ and I was like, ‘Any school in their right mind would take an athlete like you.’”

Mercer sprang into action, telling the coaches about the opportunity to get Highmark.

However, NCAA rules forbade the coaches from contacting Highmark, so Mercer ended up doing most of the recruiting.

“The coaches couldn’t play any part in that because of NCAA regulations, so they couldn’t have any communication with her,” Mercer said. “Basically, it was just on me to kind of explain to her what practices are like and what coaches are like and how the school is. She knew the area, being from Phoenix, and it just kind of fit with her, especially because her family is so close.”

Highmark arrived at ASU last spring and thus far has started three matches for the Sun Devils, compiling a team-high 93 assists.

Mercer has thus far started one match and played in another, recording 45 assists as she continues to climb ASU’s all-time assists leaderboard.

The student has received more playing time than the teacher so far, and both have played well.

For now, though, the girls are still great friends who are much like your typical college pals.

“We go out to eat a lot; that probably makes up the majority of our hangout time,” Mercer said. “We lay by the pool, just normal relaxing stuff that’s not school- or volleyball-related.”

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