“We just assumed that she was always going to be on the court, and she assumed that, and it was a great assumption.”
Chris didn't just assume his daughter would capture the essence of a program. He knew it. He watched it every step of the way.
He would sit on the bleachers and watch. Not just the 12-hour tournaments and the national tournament matches, but the menial practices week in and week out.
Abbey was old enough to drive herself to practice, but Chris would come anyway, a bit after it started — just watching his daughter play a game they both came to love. A game that would serve as the backbone of their relationship.
And he’d always leave a bit early, giving her the space she needed, but reassuring her that he’d always be there along the way.
“Every day he encouraged me," Abbey said. "And I wouldn’t have gotten through some of those hard moments of failing if I didn’t have him by my side."
He was preparing her to handle the hardest moment of her life. And this time, he wouldn’t be there.
Abbey is no stranger to cancer: to its power to take everything out of you, bring you to your breaking point and force you to be courageous when everything inside of you is telling you to be scared.
And she's learned its uncanny ability to shock even the most stable and prepared of people.
The term “nanny” doesn't do Elizabeth Dzierzanowski justice. Every summer, she was there. Every day when Abbey came home from school, Elizabeth was waiting. She received the daily rundowns, and she served as another role model. Abbey even called her "Mom" as a child when her parents were at work.
“Having the opportunity to be loved by three people who act as parents is the most wonderful thing I could’ve asked for,” Abbey said.
Elizabeth battled cancer three times. She lost her fight early in Abbey’s high school career.
There was no funeral for Abbey to attend. There was no closure. But she had to cope, for cancer wasn't gone from her life.
This time, it was in the form of leukemia. And this time, it took her dad to battle.
But cancer cannot take away the love a father has for his daughter.
Abbey was a prominent figure in the Texas volleyball scene. In high school, she was nominated to be on the cover of Vype, a magazine featuring standout high school athletes. There was one catch, though — she had to receive the most votes in the region, and each vote had to come from a different Wi-Fi network.
So Chris hopped in his car and drove around Plano, trying to hack networks around the city in order to secure the most votes for his daughter.
“Every girl wants to say that 'I’m a daddy’s girl, and I have a better dad than you,'" she said. "But no. I have a better dad than you. I promise you that.”
Selling a 5-foot-8 setter to a top national volleyball program is no small feat. It’s easy to get so caught up in numbers — height, vertical, speed — and forget what’s most important.
The heart. The will. The sheer knowledge of the game.
It was apparent even at a young age. When Abbey was nine, her recreation league team was playing in the championship game. One of the girls on her team was deaf, and the opposing team had taken it upon themselves to target her with the serve, as she had been missing the passes all game.
Knowing she couldn’t let this girl feel embarrassed but also that she couldn't lose, Abbey stood behind her teammate. As soon as the girl missed the serve receive pass, Abbey dove on the floor and popped it right up. They went on to win the match.
“She’s the kind of kid everyone dreams of coaching,” her club coach Ryan Mitchell said.
Thirteen years later, the senior setter still remains that stable force on and off the court — earning second-team All-ACC honors as the team captain for the No. 7 Tar Heels.
“I’ll be talking to a player, ask them how they’re doing, and they’ll say, ‘Oh good. I’ve been talking to Abbey a lot,’" Sagula said. "People just gravitate toward her."
“She doesn’t break down, and that’s what makes her so durable. She doesn’t let the ups and downs affect her game and the way people see her.”
All it took was a look and a quivering chin.
Abbey was getting ready for a birthday party for one of her teammates. She’d just finished her last exam of her first year and was set to leave for Europe with the team in a week and a half.
She, along with teammates Sheila Doyle and Tatiana Durr, received a message from Sagula: “Come to the entrance of Carmichael at 7.”
A bit unusual, sure, but it was on the way.
So at 7 p.m. on May 2, 2014, Abbey stood outside the entrance of Carmichael Arena in front of the row of glass doors, the same ones through which her family and friends entered to watch her play. She stared out at Hooker Fields as the sun was beginning to set, patiently waiting for Coach.
He pulled up in front of the entrance, as he often did. But her brother, Scott, emerged from the passenger door.
“At first, she was excited to see me," Scott said. "I could see her face light up."
But that excitement was brief.
Scott couldn’t stop his chin from quivering. He just looked at her and said, “Yeah.”
And that’s when she knew. Cancer had won yet again.
She stood almost 1,200 miles away from home, in front of the gym where she’d already had so much success — surrounded by her best friends, her coaches and her brother who, knowing Abbey and Chris' relationship, flew down from New York to deliver the news.
She flew home to Plano for one funeral, then to Detroit for another. Then, she came back to Chapel Hill.
Soon after that night in front of Carmichael, Abbey flew with her team to Turkey for a 13-day exhibition tour around Europe.
“She didn’t want to let the team down, and I believe she did it in memory of her dad,” Sagula said.
“And to her credit," Assistant Head Coach Eve Rackham said, "you would’ve never known it."
But she’s not a robot.
It might be in her room, tucked away from the lights of Carmichael and the presence of her teammates, but Abbey remembers.
She reaches for the phone, hoping to tell him her latest update, and she remembers.
Turn on “Drops of Jupiter,” and you might see some tears stream down Abbey’s face as she remembers her dad singing. A quote from Bridesmaids? Instantly, she laughs and remembers the man with whom she can quote that movie nearly word-for-word.
He wanted her to be a little selfish, to take credit for something and score her own points sometimes. Every time she “dumps” the ball over the net on the second touch, taking the opposing team by surprise and earning a point, she looks up. She plays for him.
“She’s going to leave back a legacy of what future Carolina players can be,” Sagula said.
She’s her father’s daughter.