Thrust into a most unlikely situation, junior Ashley Wright has embraced her new role on the Eagle volleyball team, showing that in the midst of adversity, perseverance and a team-first attitude has its rewards
By Fedor Gaponenko, EWU Sports Information
It isn’t safe to put your hope in expectations.
No one expected the Eastern Washington University volleyball team to lose not only one, but both of its veteran setters before the 2012 season really began, and junior outside hitter Ashley Wright (Leavenworth, Wash.) definitely didn’t expect to be the replacement. But when senior Laney Brown broke her big toe two weeks before the season began, and then junior Lindsay Niemeier tore her ACL in the very first match of the year, the Eagles turned to Wright.
“Well Ashley has great hands for that position,” said interim head coach Lisa Westlake, when asked why Wright was best choice to be the replacement setter. “She adapts really easily and is such a team player. With that kind of attitude, she was an easy choice because she wanted to take on the challenge.”
It is one thing for an athlete to replace an injured teammate who plays a similar position, but for an outside hitter to become the setter is a monumental shift.
Many people put in that situation would panic, but Wright took it all in stride, excited to take on the challenge.
“She is eager to do whatever the team needs her to do,” said Westlake. “She wants to be the best setter she can be.”
The transition wasn’t an easy one and didn’t necessarily become a Cinderella story, as evidenced by the 0-22 start to the season. But what it did show was something even greater than instant success. Wright and the rest of the team have been an exemplary image of perseverance and sacrifice.
Brown was able to return to the lineup just before the start of the Big Sky Conference season, but instead of moving back to her natural position, Wright now serves as the backup setter and right-side blocker. To fill this new role, Wright has sacrificed not only the position she has played her entire volleyball career, but also a significant amount of playing time.
“Of course as an outside hitter for us the last two years, she misses that position,” said Westlake. “But she understands that without a backup setter, the team would be struggling, so she stepped up to that role. She provides a bigger block at the net, which helps us defensively, and she can also be an offensive threat in the front row. She can dump the ball on tight sets and is able to make plays that normally our setter might not be able to make. That is the strength she brings in the new rotation.”
Eastern used all the strengths of its individual members to finally capture its first win of the season on Monday (Oct. 22) - a 3-0 sweep of Sacramento State. With the momentum from that victory, the Eagles are anxious to get back on the court in search of more wins. Eastern plays Montana on Thursday (Oct. 25) at Reese Court, followed by another home game Saturday (Oct. 27) versus Montana State, which is also the annual “Dig Deep for Pink” night, honoring national breast cancer awareness month.
With a roster full of team-first players like Wright, the Eagles are in good hands to reverse their fortunes.
With injuries to both of the team’s setters, you had to step in and play a position you had never played before. What was the transition like?
“It was definitely hard, especially at first having to learn a completely new position. Then adjusting to all the different roles I’ve had was challenging too because I’ve changed from an outside hitter, to full-time setter and now part-time setter and blocker up front.”
What was your initial gut reaction when asked to start setting for the team?
“I wasn’t shocked at first when Lindsay [Niemeier] was still healthy, because coach had me doing setting reps in practice before I even knew why. I was the backup setter, but I never actually needed to set. I was very shocked though when Lindsay went down and I became the full-time setter. That was shocking to the whole team. What are the chances that she would go down in the first game of the season? But at the same time, I like being put into tough situations and overcoming adversity.”
Essentially you went from scoring points as an outside hitter to being the one responsible for setting up those opportunities for your teammates. What was the most challenging aspect of learning a completely different position?
“There is the physical side of setting, which a lot of people can do, but there is a whole mental side to it as well. Learning the offense and knowing when to set and where, and against what blockers, there is a lot of stuff. I probably only learned about a quarter of it. The mental side was definitely the most challenging aspect, just knowing what to do and when.”
When senior setter Laney Brown returned to the lineup, your role changed once again to back-up setter, and mainly a blocker in the front row, which significantly affected your playing time. What went through your mind when the team had to adopt this new rotation?
“At first it was up in the air, because I didn’t know if I was going back to being an outside hitter. I was hopeful about returning back to my natural position, but then I found out my role, and I was secure in that. I know that is where my team needs me. In athletics it happens all the time when one person on a team can fulfill a certain role and I’m ok with that person being me.”
You have made a lot of sacrifices this year, from changing the position you had played throughout your entire volleyball career, to sacrificing actual minutes because of this change. What has all of this experience taught you?
“We were joking around with the team about how at the beginning of the year, we all thought we knew who would be doing what and playing what position this season, but things changed so much over the course of the season. I learned to accept it and rely on the people around me who love me and support me and help me stay strong in those situations. I’m learning to be open-minded and to just be there for my team to fill the role that needs to be filled.”
You finally got your first win on Monday (Oct. 22), but with a 1-22 record, the team isn’t where it expected to be. Through this challenging season, how are you guys growing and maturing?
“I think we are definitely maturing as women. This doesn’t happen a lot in collegiate athletics, at least not this bad. I think it is challenging our character in a good way. We are learning a lot from it and becoming better people. We are learning to roll with the punches, to face challenges and overcome them. Even when we are in a hole, we keep believing and staying positive.”
Aside from staying healthy, what does the team need to do to have a positive run through the rest of the season?
“I would say, continuing off what I said before, we need to stay positive and pumped up each and every game. We need to keep believing in our abilities. It’s not all about the X’s and O’s. We are all amazing athletes and we are here for a reason, we need to just keep believing.”
In high school, you were an exceptional volleyball and basketball player. What do you love about volleyball that made you choose to pursue it at the collegiate level?
“Basketball is a sport I’ve been playing since I was little, but I really love both. Better opportunities came up for volleyball than for basketball my senior year. I had played basketball a lot longer than volleyball and the fact that I was new to volleyball made me believe I had a lot of potential. I viewed it as a great opportunity to really get to learn the sport and maybe even coach it one day. With basketball, I felt like I already knew a lot about it. But it was a hard decision!”
What do you plan to do with your business management degree once you graduate from Eastern?
“I’m actually going to get my Masters next year during my fifth year. I am hoping to get an internship during the year as well, and finding a job. I really want to go into event coordinating or event management. My mom is a wedding photographer, so I’ve been around that scene a lot. I really like planning and organizing events.”
Aside from volleyball and school, how do you like to spend your free time?
“A huge reason I love being at Eastern is that I’m surrounded by a lot of amazing people. I would say hanging out with team and my friends and the people I’ve met through the university. I also love traveling. My dad lives in Texas, so I go there a lot and travel with my family.”
Is there anything you would like say about this season moving forward?
“I would just like to thank all the people who still support us and come to our games. It means a lot. Everyone who is pulling for us and talks to us, that encourages us a lot. I just want to give a thank you and a shout out to all of them.”