Mercury News

On Nov. 9 at 8 a.m., Amber Kaufman will sit in a conference room at Branham High and sign a letter of intent to play volleyball at the University of Hawaii.

There will be dignitaries -- the superintendent and principal -- and well-wishers. But the moment will not be about sports or scholarships. It will be about transformation. People can change, after all, and the influence of those who care can help make that happen.

Branham Athletic Director Donna McCullough is inviting teachers and coaches, some who predicted Kaufman wouldn't finish high school, and even one who said she would end up as a drug addict.

``I want people to say, `Oh, my God,' '' McCullough said. ``I want people to notice. I want kids to say, `If Amber Kaufman can do this, I can too.' ''

When Kaufman arrived at Branham in 2001, a scholarship wasn't on anyone's mind.

Academics just weren't important. She even went as far as to calculate how many points she would need on tests to get a C without having to do any homework.

She was the girl with the attitude and the outbursts. The one with pink hair, studded ears and a skateboard under her feet. The one with a single mom and an absent father.

``Everybody told me the same thing,'' said Branham Coach Lynn Hall, who took over this season. `` `This kid's going to be a terror.' ''

There was no mistaking the talent. But could Kaufman harness it without the meltdowns that threatened to overshadow her accomplishments?

The answer seems so obvious now: of course. She's carrying a 4.0 grade-point average, is leading the state in kills, is rated as the 25th-best senior player in the country and has legitimate aspirations to win the state championship in the high jump.

``She's explosive,'' said prepvolleyball.com's John Tawa of the 6-foot-1 middle blocker. ``She absolutely flies. Your immediate response is, `Who is that?' ''

For Kaufman, the frustrations always grew out of her own failures.

``I'll never get angry at other people,'' she said. ``That will never bring it out.''

Instead, she would torment herself for her mistakes or inability to stay in control. At a track practice last spring, she grew frustrated when she couldn't clear 5-foot-10, her personal record.

``She actually got so mad, she hit one of the standards, and knocked the poor standard out,'' said her jumps coach, Derrick Bell. ``It was a clean right hook.''

At a volleyball tournament in Las Vegas, Kaufman was pulled by Joe Ripp, her coach with the Vision club, after she slapped her thighs in anger. Even with a Hawaii scout in attendance to watch her, she sat the rest of the match.

Kaufman's reputation was so poor that opposing coaches refused to consider her for all-league teams.

That was enough for McCullough, who last spring asked Kaufman to come into her office.

``I want you to be here when I make this phone call,'' McCullough insisted.

As Kaufman listened, McCullough told the league chairperson, ``I can assure you that next year you will see a different child. She will grow in maturity. I guarantee it.''

As McCullough hung up, she looked at Kaufman.

``Now you know that I have enough confidence in you to risk my professional integrity,'' she said.

Gradually, the hard lessons sunk in, and Kaufman realized she had to change. It was not only plain in the conversation with McCullough, but in her own understanding of herself. Others saw her potential. She was so close. They just wanted her to see it, too.

Finally, she has.

It's an ongoing process, said Hall, the Branham coach.

``We've gone toe to toe, and head to head,'' Hall said. ``When she's frustrated with herself, she honestly believes she's letting her teammates down. I tell her, `Nobody's thinking that way.' ''

Kaufman was selected as team captain this season and has grown to embrace the leadership role. Even with a talent disparity on her team, she encourages her teammates and never gets down on them, and rarely gets down on herself. Now, the Bruins (16-10) are challenging for their first Blossom Valley Athletic League Mount Hamilton Division championship.

``There are so many kids out there, with bad attitudes and about to quit, that can look at Amber and say, `She's kind of like me,' '' said her mother, Stacy Farmer. ``You don't have to have the perfect pedigree, you just have to hang in there.''

The proof will be plain to see, with a signature on a dotted line.

Contact David Kiefer at dkiefer@mercurynews.com