Volleyball players form family-like bonds. From 1996-99, the Winthrop volleyball family bonds started with Cristi Curtis.
Curtis will be inducted, posthumously, into the Winthrop Athletics Hall of Fame in a Feb. 27 ceremony along with four others.
Curtis was one of several talented western Michigan players who played for Winthrop. Those players looked out for each other. Shannon McPhee was already at Winthrop when Holly Westhouse arrived. The next year Westhouse welcomed in Curtis and the two became roommates.
Curtis took Illinois native Julie (Zschau) McGee under her wing the following year. Curtis made everyone around her feel good.
"I knew I had a good connection with (Curtis)," McGee, the volleyball coach at York Comprehensive High School, said of his first year at Winthrop. "She made me feel comfortable and welcome. She wanted me to be there and made it be fine to be away from home."
"Cristi was the most energetic young lady you ever met. She was an amazing kid that rubbed off on everybody," former Winthrop volleyball coach Mark Cooke said.
Cooke recruited and signed Curtis. He coached Curtis' freshman year before his duties were split and he turned his attention solely to coaching softball. Cathy Ivester coached Curtis her final three seasons.
"She would do anything, without question, to try to get better. She was a very loyal and strong leader," Ivester said. "I was very selective in who I asked to talk to recruits. I wanted to be sure they had leadership skills. I trusted her. She was an extension of the staff. She was our team captain. She was the nucleus of our team.
"(Curtis) was a pioneer. That group of recruits helped move Winthrop to another level," Ivester added.
She had a way of making everyone around her the center of attention. It didn't matter if it was a teammate, a coach or a recruit, she had the ability to focus on making that person feel important.
"I can't even begin to tell you what a true rose she was. That kid was made to make everyone else feel good," Cooke said.
As a setter for Winthrop, Curtis drew the best performances out of her teammates.
"Her overall athleticism helped. She was quick to learn," Westhouse said. The two also played together in high school and club volleyball.
"She played three sports, I only played volleyball. She was an outside hitter in high school but moved to setter her senior year. It was pretty amazing to earn a college scholarship at that position," Westhouse said.
Curtis was even better in the classroom, earning several academic honors.
She graduated in 2000 with a degree in special education. She was a four-year starter on the volleyball team, a three-time selection on the Big South Conference all-academic team and earned Big South scholar athlete of the year in 1999.
"Cristi always pushed herself and took on a challenge. She was taking 20 hours and still practiced and played matches. She never complained or looked for excuses. I always looked up to her for that," McGee said.
Curtis ranks in the top 10 on several career and single-season school lists. She is second in career assists, sixth in career digs, and fourth in career service aces.
She was selected to the All-Big South Conference second team in 1999 and also was named to the 1999 Big South all-tournament team.
Curtis went on to become a high school volleyball coach in Michigan before her untimely death in 2007. At the age of 29 she was shot and killed in her western Michigan home by her estranged boyfriend in an apparent murder-suicide on July 19, 2007.
She had been named volleyball coach at nearby Aquinas College three weeks prior to her death.
The heartbreaking responsibility of communicating news of Curtis' death to former teammates fell on Westhouse, who enlisted the help of Ivester.
"I called a lot of people and we all stayed together in my small condo and with my parents," Westhouse said. "We laughed a lot and cried a lot. (Curtis) would have hated being the center of attention. She always flew under the radar. It was kind of impossible, though; she was such an exceptional person."
McGee remembers getting the call.
"I knew it had something to do with Cristi and had an instant feeling it was bad. I was driving and had to pull over," McGee said, then went quiet while she regained her cracking voice. "It still hurts."
Cooke got the news from Winthrop assistant athletic director for media relations Jack Frost.
"I was in Toronto recruiting for softball. I didn't know what to do. We drove back to Rock Hill. I was devastated when I heard the news," Cooke said.
"She was dynamic kid. I had two young sons at the time and when they showed up at practice she made them feel the center of attention. It made no difference who it was. That was her personality. It was just hard. It's still hard. She just made herself a part of everyone. I am just truly happy she is going into the Hall. This is a true honor for her. You just can't help but think about all the joy and laughter she brought into your life," he added.