By Cassidy Thornburg
“She has risen to the occasion.”
After practice one day in October, senior captain Cassie Swiderek shared that one of the things volleyball has taught her is “how to prioritize time and people,” something Coach Stephanie Schmidt believes comes naturally to her.
“Her leadership strength is relational,” Schmidt said. “Cassie is really intentional about connecting with her teammates and believes that the best way for her to lead is to really know everyone well. Whether they’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or even a fellow senior, Cassie wants to lead from a really relational place which I see as a strength of hers.
Her ability to “connect with her teammates” goes beyond the court.
“I’ve never had this on another team — we really do life together,” Swiderek shared. “It’s not just like you show up to the gym and you see your teammates; we go to dinner together, we have DSGs together, and we hang out all the time. We are pretty much always with each other, even when we are not in the gym, and that goes year round too.”
In high school, she also played soccer but decided to just play volleyball in college. She credits athletics with teaching her applicable life lessons.
“You learn a lot of lessons in athletics that I don’t feel like I would have learned anywhere else, like how to push myself not only physically, which is a big thing, but more so mentally — when your body wants to give up, seeing what your mind can do. Also learning the value in slow and steady growth over immediate results — life lessons I would say.”
“Slow and steady growth” speaks to the patience Swiderek had to give herself in learning a new position her sophomore year.
“Cassie came in playing one position, but we moved her to a different position, which isn’t all that unusual in sports. However, she went from being a middle hitter to a defensive specialist which doesn’t happen a lot,” Schmidt commented. “It’s been really fun to watch her accept that challenge. She learned a new position her sophomore year and she got better at it her junior year. Now as a senior she’s a leader in that role — she’s never been able to settle and coast. Every year she is stepping up a little bit differently, and she’s risen to the occasion.” With a season high of 18 digs in one game, and 102 for this season, Swiderek’s statistics echo Coach Schmidt’s sentiments. Even after the season comes to a close, it’s clear Swiderek will continue to apply her commitment to relational leadership off the court.
“She is very focused, very driven and very competitive.”
“Volleyball fosters grit,” senior captain Ellie Brown said. “Volleyball in college is more of a competitive outlet than when I first started playing, but even more so, it’s just a platform to minister to these other teams — volleyball has grown into such a special ministry. I have found it amazing to play these other women all the time and see them grow.” After every game, the Thunder volleyball team invites the opposing team to pray with them. This is just one of the ways that Brown is able to share her faith through the sport and another way Coach Schmidt would say she’s “stepped up.”
“It has been really fun for me to see Ellie step up in ways she hadn’t in the past, especially vocally this year,” Schmidt said. “She’s naturally had good leadership qualities, but now she is sort of demanding that of herself. She brings a strong on-court leadership presence for us, and is someone who always tries to drive the team’s momentum forward.”
In addition to driving momentum, Brown provides the first line of defense as the team’s starting middle blocker. Brown has an impressive 79 total blocks so far this season, and a season-high of seven in one game. Her consistency as a blocker has been key to the team’s success this season, although early on, Brown recognizes that she wants her impact to go beyond numbers on a stat line.
“I meet with our seniors during preseason camp to talk about casting a vision for the year, and also leaving a legacy,” Schmidt shared. “Everybody uses that phrase, but what does it mean? What do they want to be remembered for? In five years, not a lot of people in this program are going to remember them by name or for their athletic accomplishments, but they might remember the kind of program they helped create. I think Ellie has really taken that to heart. I see her trying to leave behind a program that was better than when she came in as a freshman. That’s always the goal — to leave something better than you found it.”
Brown truly cares about the program, especially what happens to it after she graduates, because with her teammates she has always felt at home.
“I feel like coming in as a freshman, it’s like an immediate family — an instant group of friends, mentors and sisters,” Brown shared. “It’s been cool to go from a young 19-year-old to a senior where I am able to pour into the lives of the younger girls. It really is a family, and I’m just so thankful for my time on the team.”
“Someone who is always finding joy, smiling and laughing.”
Senior setter and captain Alecia Funk’s number one way to describe the Thunder volleyball team is “joyful.” Teammates would use the same word to describe Funk. From my first interaction with the Union University transfer, Funk exuded a contagiously cheerful vibe. Her optimism is in no way ignorant or shallow, but evidently comes from a place of depth and trust in something more powerful than herself. Her confidence in Christ is something she carries with her into the game of volleyball.
“Learning to be present with the Lord is a huge part of volleyball for me,” Funk said. “You know the hymn that goes, ‘Take my hands and let them move at the impulse of thy love?’” Funk took a deep breath, clearly replaying a moment in her head, “Even when I’m serving, I’m just remembering that Jesus is up there watching me. Different things like that help me to feel present with him.”
So far this season, Funk has 431 sets and 186 digs, almost double her totals from last year, and there are still a couple matches left on the schedule. Funk also helps lead the team as one of the three captains.
“Alecia is definitely an emotional leader, and by that I mean a leader of the team’s emotions,” Schmidt shared. “She is someone who has a huge heart and one of the perpetually positive people on the team. Even when things are difficult, she is always looking for good. That can be a really helpful thing anytime you get into the middle of the season it can be a grind. She is someone who is always finding joy, smiling, laughing and helping the team keep perspective in that way.”