SIOUX CITY | Less than two weeks after the death of her mother, Makenzie Montano called Andy Cavins, volleyball coach at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky.
Montano told Cavins she had nowhere to go. She needed help.
Montano and Cavins stand in Sioux City this week to compete for the NAIA National Volleyball Championship. The tournament represents the final action for Montano in a most fulfilling playing career, one whose collegiate arc began in August 2012 when Donna Montano was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer.
"On the second day of my junior year in high school, my mom had a nine-hour surgery," Makenzie Montano says.
Makenzie's parents, Tony and Donna Montano, divorced when Makenzie was 5 years old. Her older sister, Morgan Montano, was a student at Western Kentucky University in 2012. It meant that Makenzie, a junior at Mercy Academy High School in Louisville, Kentucky, resided at home, largely alone, during her junior year. Well, when she wasn't sleeping next to her mother at the hospital.
The cancer moved to Donna Montano's spine in February 2013. Six months later, Makenzie Montano signed a volleyball scholarship offered by Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina, an NCAA Division II institution nearly 500 miles from Louisville.
However, by the start of Montano's high school senior year, her mother's condition worsened. By the early spring of 2014, the family knew time was running out. Makenzie and her date for the senior prom stopped by the hospital to see her mother.
On July 3, 2014, Donna Montano collapsed at home. Makenzie rode along in the ambulance, shouting at her mother, imploring her to wake up. "She was having seizures and would only respond to my voice," she says.
Eleven days later, Makenzie sat with her mother in her room at an assisted living facility in Louisville. Her mother rolled away from her daughter and lay on her side, prompting Makenzie to ask, "Mom, are you OK?"
"My mom turned back over, looked me dead in the eye and said, 'I love you more than you will ever know.'"
It was the last time Donna Montano spoke. Seconds later, she suffered a seizure and fell into a coma. She died a few hours later, at 12:27 a.m. on July 15, 2014, just three minutes after Makenzie and sister Morgan ran into her room. Makenzie said it was her mother's last selfless act, shielding her daughters from watching her die.
"That was just like Mom," Makenzie says.
Makenzie Montano, then 18 years old, helped plan her mother's funeral. She signed papers to have her cremated. She stayed at home, surrounded by her sister and her father. In a matter of days, she was supposed to make an eight-hour drive to Queens University.
"Around July 25, I called the coach at Queens and asked for my release from their scholarship," she says. "I told them I couldn't go that far from home. I wasn't ready to do that. They understood."
She then called Coach Cavins, a man who had served as a recommendation for Montano's scholarship application at Queens. Cavins had coached Montano in one season of club volleyball. "I called Coach Cavins and said I had nowhere to go," Montano said. "I asked if he could help me out."
He did. Cavins asked Montano to fill out an application for admission to Lindsey Wilson College. She followed orders and did it that night. Officials expedited the paperwork and let Montano know that, as a high school graduate with a 3.98 grade-point average, she'd earn academic and athletic scholarships.
"I'd never been to Lindsey Wilson College before," Montano remembers. "I'd barely heard of it. My only connection was Coach Cavins."
She made the 102-mile drive and visited the school on July 27, 2014. She moved in one week later. She has since started four years as the setter for the Blue Raiders, who begin pool play in the national tournament at 9 a.m. Tuesday against Texas Wesleyan, of Fort Worth Texas.
"I didn't chose Lindsey Wilson," Montano says, "Lindsey Wilson chose me."
The college, she says, saved her, allowing her to remain close to home while extending her playing career, something she's passionate about. Coach Cavins and his wife, Jessica Cavins, and their 3-year-old son, Kellar Cavins, have become Montano's second family.
Cavins called his setter this summer and asked to connect with her father, Tony Montano, simultaneously. Cavins took the opportunity to laud the elder Montano for his support of his daughter through an extremely trying time. "I wouldn't have made it without my dad," Makenzie Montano says.
And then Cavins disclosed that his star setter, a first-team NAIA All-American as a junior, would be on full scholarship her senior year. The news allowed the Montanos to go car shopping as Makenzie had been without wheels for six months following an accident.
After her graduation, Makenzie Montano, a communications major with a 3.94 grade-point average, plans to enter graduate school at Lindsey Wilson while possibly working as a graduate assistant in the volleyball program, one way in which she'll return some of what Lindsey Wilson College has offered her.
While Montano, player of the year in the Mid-South Conference, can't wait to get going in the national tournament, she remains a bit reflective this week, examining how her mother's fight against cancer ultimately set her collegiate volleyball career in motion.
Her mother, she says, is never far from her thoughts, especially on the volleyball court. She shows off a tattoo that reads, "Always on my mind. Forever in my heart. 7-15-14."
"The tattoo is on my right side, which is odd for a tattoo on the ribs," she admits. "I did that to hide it, and because my mom was always my right hand, my best friend."
The Blue Raider setter also wears a necklace. Before each match, she removes the necklace and, prior to placing it in her bag, gives it a kiss.
The necklace also features that date: 7-15-2014; a day she'll never forget, for all the right reasons.