Lauren Baxter usually warms up by herself before Kings Park girls volleyball matches.
While her teammates go through their drills, she stretches individually because of lupus, a condition she said was diagnosed during the summer of 2014. Baxter frequently experiences stiffness in her hips and back, preventing her from having a full range of motion at times. She said it feels like she's stuck.
"Last year it was rough because I wasn't sure how to handle my body," Baxter said. "I didn't know my limits."
Hers are common symptoms of lupus, an autoimmune disease that can do damage to the skin, joints or organs inside the body, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. It is a chronic condition that can flare up at any time.
Individual stretching allows her to completely loosen up before a match, even though her teammates might be going through drills on the court at the same time. She does this now after learning to live with the condition as an athlete.
Baxter's junior season was difficult, as a nine-month stretch of doctor appointments, blood work and body scans prevented her from staying on the court consistently.
"There were some stretches where she just couldn't go," coach Ed Manly said. "Her body couldn't handle it. She had to sit some games out. But once they were able to manager her meds a little bit, it got better."
Baxter was a setter her junior season, but stuck behind Newsday Top 25 Player to Watch Stephanie Cornwell, who was also a junior. Baxter wanted to start as a senior, so she learned to manage her condition and took private lessons during this past offseason to learn a new position.
She trained to be a libero, a defensive position heavily involved in the game at all times. The lessons paid off.
"She showed up in the gym for tryouts and owned it," Manly said. "She earned a starting spot playing back row over some kids who had been playing back row all their lives."
An impressive four-game stint at libero to open the season was overshadowed by sophomore Meagan Murphy, who Manly said was simply too special a player to not start at the position. Even after a summer's worth of rewarding lessons, Baxter had to switch again. This time it was to the back line, where she has started since.
"I told her right before a match, and I could tell she was upset," Manly said. "And then that match there wasn't a kid on our team rooting harder for Meagan than Lauren. Every time Meagan made a play, Lauren was slapping her on the back. After the game, Lauren hugged her and told her how proud she was."
If you ask her teammates or coaches, this is just how Baxter is. She loves her teammates like family -- which is a word that gets tossed around frequently by Manly and the players -- and each girl supports another like family members would.
That's why it was a natural impulse for Manly to lead his players on the 21st Annual Walk-Along for Lupus at Eisenhower Park last October. He found out that Baxter and her family would be walking, so he pitched the idea to his players, who instantly loved the prospect of supporting their friend.
"They were like 'oh my god, absolutely. We didn't even know about this,''' Manly said of their reaction.
Baxter was brought to tears by the gesture.
"The fact that they took the time on the one off day we have a week to go do a walk for me, it means so much to me," Baxter said.
Manly said that he and the team "absolutely" plan on walking for Baxter again at Eisenhower Park on Oct. 18.
Baxter said she doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for her, nor does she want to be thought of as different. Sure, she stretches a little extra on her own. That only helps her better contribute to a Kings Park team that has started the season 8-1 overall after Friday's non-league win over Wantagh.
"Lauren's a really special kid," Manly said. "She's just a great teammate and a great kid."