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2012-04-16

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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ONE LAST SEASON: Chronicling the senior seasons of Alex Hunt and Stuart Douglass

By Steven Braid, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 15, 2012

Sitting on the bleachers inside an empty Cliff Keen Arena on a gloomy afternoon in mid-November, Alex Hunt scanned a photo that epitomizes pure joy. The image is of her, at the age of 16, wearing a huge smile across her face while she holds a medal draped around her neck. It was taken after her club volleyball team won the state championship to qualify for nationals — an eternity ago. These weren’t better or worse times, just different.

“Good feelings, definitely good feelings,” Alex said, turning the photo over in her hands.

Eyes fixated on the photo, she stopped herself, lost for words.

“These are just good memories; it was just a lot of fun. God, it’s so funny looking back at these — I was really skinny.”

Just weeks before her competitive volleyballs days would end, she stared at what her career had been. It all seemed so surreal now.

“It felt like there never was an end to volleyball. Looking at this photo, at this point, I had six years of volleyball left. It’s weird to think about it because now I only have less than two weeks left.”

Six years earlier, it all seemed endless: the nonstop workouts, endless traveling for club-volleyball tournaments and continual college recruiting trips. But here she sat, alone on the bleachers with just four games left in the regular season, facing the twilight of her career.

A month later, in the middle of December, Stuart Douglass sat inside the Stephen Ross Academic Center feeling grateful for his health. The previous night, he received a text message from a friend and old training partner who had just suffered a career-ending ACL injury.

“Things can just happen in a heartbeat that you can never expect, and it can change your career,” he said. “It definitely makes you appreciate your time. You know, I haven’t had the games or the success that I wanted so far this year, but those types of things kind of put a different perspective on it and it makes you appreciate all the games you play.

“It kind of puts more emotion into counting down the games until it’s all over.”

Alex and Stuart are far from alone. One hundred and eleven athletes had the word “senior” printed alongside their name on a Michigan varsity roster this past year. Most will graduate in May and won’t play their sport professionally and might never play it again. This is the end for all of them — if not their athletic careers, then at least their amateur careers — and that alone makes for an emotional year.

The Michigan Daily spent the last year with Douglass and Hunt, chronicling what could be their final seasons.

Beginning of the End

“I want to leave behind my legacy. I want to be up there with the top leaders of the programs. How many people get the opportunity to play a Division–I sport, and be a team captain and lead the team? I feel like it would be stupid for me to not embrace that.” – Alex Hunt, Sept. 14, 2011

This was the beginning of the end. Alex Hunt knew this.

In four quick months, her career would be over. And yet, in the middle of August, she yearned for the start of the upcoming volleyball season. She was anxious to get back to competition.

As she prepared for her senior year and her final season as a Michigan Wolverine, Alex had made up her mind that there would be no next level for her, no new organization to represent and no new teammates to play alongside. She seemed at ease with her decision — almost as if she realized that her illustrious career was serendipitous, that she happened upon this sport by pure accident.

“To be honest, I kind of got peer-pressured into playing,” Alex said, laughing. “It’s funny that I even remember this, but in third grade there was a sign-up sheet that went around for the (volleyball) teams for the following year. I remember that I was the only girl in my entire grade that didn’t sign up just because I had no interest in playing sports at all — it wasn’t my thing. But then I ended up playing the next year just because everyone else did and I ended up just falling in love with the game.”

If being introduced to volleyball happened by chance, becoming a star did not. Determined to excel, Alex worked hard to continually improve. She spent countless hours with her dad in their garage to develop her serve and other parts of her game.

“I remember hating going out there so much,” Alex said with a chuckle. “It would be freezing cold — I would be bundled up and would still practice.”

Alex has sacrificed a lot, both socially and academically, for her volleyball career. She was driven by incentive.

“I think my ultimate goal was to go to college, get college paid for, and go to a school that I probably wouldn’t be able to get into academically.”

Alex recognized that this was the choice she made, and she’s extremely proud of her volleyball career — and rightfully so.

Entering her senior year, she’d achieved a long list of accomplishments: MVP of the USA Junior Olympic Girls’ Volleyball Championship 16-year-old National Division in 2006, gold medal at the NORCECA Girls Youth Continental Championship in 2006, two-time first team all-state selection in high school, unanimous selection to the All-Big Ten Freshman team in 2008, selection to the U.S. Women’s Junior National Team in 2009, and an AVCA Third Team All-American selection as a junior in 2010. Her name is also scattered across Michigan’s record books.

She’s appreciative of the opportunities the sport has provided her, including a chance to play overseas when her collegiate career ends — if she wants to.

It’s a tempting offer.

Undoubtedly, she could make an impact for several professional volleyball teams overseas. It’s a great opportunity, which is why it was surprising when she voiced the next three words to me without even the slightest bit of hesitation:

“This is it.”

***

“He wanted to prove to himself and to the world that he could play with the best athletes in the country. He didn’t want anybody to ever say, ‘He was OK at Harvard.’ He would have rather failed at the Big Ten than just be OK at Harvard.”– Stuart’s father, Matt Douglass, Feb. 12, 2012

It could have been the beginning of the end. Stuart hoped differently.

But in early October, one week before full-team practices started, Stuart took a seat in a study room on the second floor inside the Ross Academic Center, and he was not thinking about his future. Playing professionally, a possible end to his career, job searching — these were the furthest thoughts from his mind.

“I haven’t really thought about the end at all. I just really want time to speed up so we can get practices started, and I want time to speed up so we can get the games started.”

Even with the departure of guard Darius Morris to the NBA, the preseason workouts provided an encouraging sign for Stuart. He was excited, almost edgy, to get onto the court. His senior season, he thought, was his time to shine, his time to lead.

Yes, as a junior and with the team lacking seniors, Stuart was forced into leadership responsibilities last year: He assumed a captain position, a role he wasn’t yet comfortable with. But with another year of experience under his belt, he was loose. He was enthusiastic about the chance to help the incoming freshmen acclimate to Michigan.

“The pressure is off, more so than it has been in other years. I’m just mentally relaxed.”

Stuart received a Fisher Price basketball hoop for Christmas as a youngster. Several years later, before he became a teenager, he told his parents that he wanted to play collegiate basketball. They chuckled, but he was serious.

Whereas most athletes play multiple sports in junior high school and in high school, especially at small schools, Stuart decided early-on that he was going to devote all of his time to basketball. He stopped playing other sports competitively during the sixth grade.

“I loved baseball, and I still love playing it whenever I can, but I didn’t want to play anymore because I just wanted to focus on basketball. But I never really looked back and I never regretted it at all.”

His family moved from Cicero, Ind. to Carmel, Ind. just weeks before his sophomore year in high school, in large part to give Stuart more basketball exposure. It was a painful experience — moving from a tight-knit town to a large Indianapolis suburb — but Stuart’s dream was to play in the Big Ten.

He would later turn down an offer to play basketball for Colorado because it wasn’t Big Ten basketball. His parents didn’t say anything.

Then Harvard came calling, and even without an offer from Michigan or any other school in the conference, he didn’t accept that offer either — he was holding out for Michigan. His mother, Nancy, was worried. She feared that her son would miss out on the right opportunity waiting for a call that might never come.

As he approached the start of his senior season at Michigan, all Stuart wanted was to keep playing. He knew his future after Michigan was dependent on the upcoming season, on how well he performed.

The Big Ten had always been his dream, but now he wanted more.

The Season

“Just the return ( that basketball) has given me with bringing me here and all the great people you meet and all the great teachers you meet — you just don’t want to give that up.” – Stuart Douglass, Dec. 8, 2011

December 8 — Stuart slid into a chair in the lobby of the Ross Academic Center. It was barely a month into the season, but he seemed exhausted. Maybe all the traveling the team had done had taken its toll on him, or maybe it was his inconsistent play. Whatever the cause was, he looked weary.

“Things have gone by pretty fast,” Stuart admitted.

Three weeks earlier, he was loose. He wasn’t worried. He wasn’t stressed. He was at ease.

But one month into the season, things had changed. No longer waiting for his senior season to start, he was nine games into the season and trying to slow things down.

“It makes you appreciate how much time you had at such a great school. The emotions are starting to build up a little bit — you don’t really notice it — when you think that you’re never going to get that game back or that you’re never going to play this team again. It’s just kind of weird to think about.”

Since scoring 14 points, grabbing five boards and dishing four assists in the season-opener against Ferris State, Stuart had mixed poor showings with efficient performances.

He was pressing and it was unsettling for him. With every sub-par game came the weight of unmet expectations — his own lofty expectations — and his lasting legacy.

“It’s one last game you have to make a lasting impression on people, and after this year you very well may be easily forgotten. Every day you’re working to make your impression and it is added pressure. It is added pressure that I didn’t really expect thinking about it at the beginning of the year.”

Or maybe the pressure had always been there, quiet, unacknowledged. Maybe it was there from the day he turned down Harvard.

But it didn’t matter when the pressure settled, just that it did. What Stuart needed then was to rid himself of all the expectations and just play basketball. He needed it to be fun again.

“You thought senior year you were going to let loose and be more comfortable. It hasn’t quite turned out how I wanted it to.”

And then the conversation turned towards his future.

“(Playing professionally is) the kind of thing I want. No matter how short it is, or how little I play, or even if I don’t play at all — it will be just another learning experience.”

And as Stuart noted, though it would have been smart for him to start preparing for a life without basketball and thinking about an alternative plan just in case, he just couldn’t get himself to think about it. He wanted to put off job-searching until later so he could focus solely on basketball.

“I don’t want to put too many eggs in one basket.”

He paused, and then confessed:

“But sometimes, it’s hard not to.”

***

“I take volleyball super seriously, and I always forget that it’s honestly just a game. Not only is it just a game, but this is probably the most fun and most free that you are going to be for the rest of your life. And when you come into the gym, you have an opportunity to set aside everything else.” – Alex Hunt, Oct. 18, 2011

October 18 — Fear.

That’s what motivated Alex more than anything. She feared her career ending before she wanted it to, and she feared playing poorly during the final weeks of her career — she feared leaving the wrong legacy behind.

Four weeks earlier, this uneasiness wouldn’t have arisen. Alex was playing well and had helped the Wolverines to an undefeated nonconference record, 12-0. But in the middle of October, fear, rational fear, slowly crept into her mind. She was battered, both physically and mentally, and the Wolverines were just 3-5 since winning the Michigan/Adidas Invitational, planting them in the middle of the Big Ten standings.

Three days earlier, Michigan barely squeaked past cellar-dweller Northwestern in five sets — a team that had only one win in seven conference games entering the matchup — to halt a four-game losing streak. But if the Wolverines didn’t improve quickly, the far-fetched idea of Michigan not earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament would become a reality.

“I only have 12 guaranteed games left in the season, and I want to go out on a team that I can be proud of.”

Her voice quivered and her face was emotional, eyes glassy.

“I don’t like the idea of going out playing not as well as I’ve played in the past. Right now, I’m just not happy with the amount of responsibility that I am not carrying.”

Her voice trailed off, and she sounded frustrated and disappointed.

For the first time all season, Alex examined the conclusion of her career.

“I’m feeling it a lot right now — honestly, more than I ever have — because I’m not playing as well as I would like to be playing. It’s really frustrating. I don’t know if I need my confidence back or what exactly I’m missing right now, but I’m trying to figure it out.”

Alex had recently started filling out job applications. She wanted to wait until the season was over, until the second semester, but she didn’t want to fall behind. Forced to think about her future, she wondered what her new passion would be or how she would channel her competitive spirit.

“Do I take up arts and crafts? Do I take up tennis?”

She’s joking, of course. But behind the jesting, there’s a grain of truth. What will life be like after volleyball? It’s all she’s known for the past 13 years.

“I was thinking about it over the summer when I really wasn’t playing all the time and my body was rested and was feeling great,” Alex said. “And then I tweaked my ankle while I was walking. I was like, ‘My body is pretty much falling apart, and going pro and getting hurt overseas would be awful,’ so that’s when I decided that it wouldn’t be the best choice.

“It would just kind of delay the whole entire ‘going into reality’ thing.”

***

“There are definitely some tough fans out there, but to get the reassurance like that, every single day, win or lose, (the ushers) are always supporting you and it feels good. The student section is the same way. It’s something that I’m really going to miss.” – Stuart Douglass, Jan. 11, 2012

January 11 — It was about 9:30 at night when Stuart walked out of the Junge Family Champions Center after doing his usual postgame interviews. It had been more than a half-hour since he helped lead Michigan to an overtime victory against Northwestern, and he was mentally and physically drained.

Roughly two months into the season, the demands of the season were more obvious than ever.

“You need to be mentally tough. That’s the key, because we are spent physically. A lot of this is a blur.”

Over the past two weeks, Stuart’s play had improved and he felt encouraged. Despite going 0-for-6 from beyond the arc that night, he felt that his shooting had improved of late, but that wasn’t his focus. His defense, passing, and his ability to create off the dribble — it had all developed, and it’s something he had begun to pride himself on.

“You kind of hear the cliché, ‘Senior, and he’s all for the team and he’s giving it his all and he’s pouring his heart out for the team,’ and that’s not always the case. But I’m really trying to buy into that cliché.”

He took a deep breath.

“I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been that way completely for the first three years. I’ve probably focused on some other things too much, but now I’m really just taking pride in playing for my teammates and playing for Michigan.

“I think early on, I would look too much into going 0-for-6 from three … but if I start pouting now, I’m not going to have any more opportunities to contribute to the team and then people will not be able to remember me for anything. So you don’t want to do that.”

Standing inside Blavin Tunnel, the players’ entrance, Stuart noticed the difference from the beginning of the year. He had freed himself from the soaring expectations that he had for himself as a leader and as a player.

“At the beginning of the year, that’s exactly what it was — the pressure (to) have a big senior year scoring points and hitting shots. I told myself that I wasn’t thinking about that the first eight games or so, but I really was. It was in the back of my head, and unconsciously, it was hurting my game. But I really forgot about that when Big Ten play started.”

And even though he knew that every game was an audition for the professional teams out there and that every game could impact his future, he was trying mightily to put aside his career ambitions. He wanted to enjoy what little time he had left at Michigan.

“I’m not putting too much pressure on myself for that. I’m just kind of focusing on what’s in front of me now and let that take care of what will happen in the future.”

For Stuart, the end inched closer, day by day.

***

“I feel like all I talk about in my (job) interviews is volleyball. Do these people understand the level of time commitment and energy that goes into volleyball? I hope they do, or else I just sound really stupid.” – Alex Hunt, Nov. 22, 2011

November 22 — Alex walked out onto the court at Cliff Keen Arena and took a seat in the first row of bleachers nearest to the locker rooms. She had traded her volleyball apparel for a formal outfit that afternoon.

Minutes later, she would be on camera, recording a video segment to be played during senior night. She would be asked to reflect on her senior year and her entire Michigan career. And even though she had been practicing for this story almost every week for the past three months, she didn’t know what to say or even if she would tear up. All she knew was that this was just another warning that her career was coming to an end.

“We had our last weightlifting session yesterday — which I am beyond excited about because I can tell you that I will never be in another Michigan weight room again.”

Her eyes lit up and a smile formed.

“It’s kind of odd to go through these last checks. Today was the last regular-season practice that I’ll have in Cliff Keen. After tomorrow night’s game, it’s going to be weird never going to play another game in Cliff Keen ever.”

Since besting Northwestern on Oct. 15, the Wolverines were 4-6, hardly a respectable record, even in the rugged Big Ten. Even worse, right as she had begun playing her best ball of the season, Alex suffered an ankle injury in pregame warmups before Michigan faced Minnesota 10 days earlier.

The injury forced her to miss almost all of that game and rendered her ineffective the following weekend against Northwestern and then-No. 7 Illinois. Unable to get any sort of vertical leap, she stayed away from the net in both games, playing only in the back row.

“It was better than not doing anything, but it was frustrating not being able to do the one thing that I like to do.”

But unlike in previous weeks, displeasure was notably absent from her voice.

At that moment, all she wanted was a shot at redemption, as if it was her fault that she suffered an injury during the last game of the regular season of her junior year, right before the NCAA Tournament. She couldn’t escape the memory: watching helplessly from the sidelines, as an overmatched Michigan squad, without its best hitter, dropped three straight sets in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Washington.

It had been two long years since she had played in the NCAA Tournament, since she helped spearhead a trip to the Elite Eight — the only trip to the Regional Finals in program history — and she longed for another opportunity. Despite its inconsistent play, Michigan was still ranked, and at 19-11, the Wolverines were almost assured an at-large bid. And yet, during the last week of the regular season, Alex was haunted by one recurring thought.

“I keep thinking, ‘What if on Sunday, for some obscure reason, we don’t make the tournament?’”

***

“When you chip away at all the crap that’s happened, and all the stress that got piled on to that joy that maybe got shoved under the table — when you do chip away at all that, you have a kid, a young man that truly loves this game. He loves this game.” – Nancy Douglass, Feb. 12, 2012

February 18 — Stuart was elated.

Even though it was near midnight, a crowd of at least 50 fans had gathered at the mouth of the media entrance tunnel, waiting for Michigan players to walk back across the court. And as Stuart walked out of the tunnel, they erupted in cheers and applause. Little kids shouted his name, and students and teenagers asked to take pictures with him. He wanted to make a fan’s night and take photos, but he hesitated, afraid to interrupt our interview. He looked over at me for approval.

The ecstatic fans got their wish. He was a rock star.

At the end of one of the craziest and most action-packed days of his career, he should have been exhausted. But all he could feel at that moment was pure joy. Earlier that morning, Stuart sat on the set of ESPN’s College GameDay, answering questions about his teammate Zack Novak on national television in a game of “Know Your Teammate.” More than 12 hours later, Stuart walked back across the court to his locker room, having helped the Wolverines beat rival Ohio State in the most-hyped game of the season.

“It hasn’t been a rivalry. People have called this a rivalry, but it hasn’t been. We lost six straight, and we beat them once when (Evan) Turner wasn’t playing. I wish I could stay two or three more years to get the rivalry back the way we did against Michigan State.”

As the year progressed, a mental checklist was building in his mind, things he wanted to accomplish before his Michigan career ended. Beating Ohio State loomed large on that list.

“When (Jared) Sullinger caught that ball in the corner with three seconds left — and I knew we were going to win, make or miss — I got so relieved that I just stopped. I didn’t even box out.

“It’s one of those things where you want something so badly, and then when you finally get it after working so hard for it, you just kind of let yourself mentally relax.”

That game, that atmosphere, had brought the fun back to basketball. Stuart was back to playing for the love of the game.

“I want the end to come. I want the NCAA Tournament to come.”

He paused, taking a moment to compose his thoughts.

“We’re always taking it one game at a time, but I want to see how this stuff pans out. It sucks that it’s coming to an end, but at the same time I can’t wait for it to end just to see how it ends.”

***

“Now that I actually have a job and (my future) is locked down — and really, it’s done after this season — it’s definitely put things in perspective. It’s more realistic that the days are numbered. It’s made me realize that however many games we have left in the NCAA Tournament, that those are the last times that I will play volleyball.” – Alex Hunt, Dec. 5, 2011

December 5 — Two days earlier, the Wolverines upset No. 6 Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and Alex’s feelings about the season turned 180 degrees.

Alex was smiling. Laughing. Having fun.

Her frustration and disappointment vanished. No sulking, no exasperation, no resentment.

“I feel like this season, with all the injuries and personal struggles that I’ve had to overcome — right now, I finally feel like I’m back to where I was before all the injuries. I have my confidence back — I feel like I used to. I just want to keep it there because I just remember being so upset about how I was playing and how everything was just a mess.”

As the team prepared for the Sweet 16, Alex was confident but scared. The cruelty of postseason play is that any game could have been the last of her season and her career. It’s unnerving.

“Against Stanford, I was thinking, ‘Wow, this could be it.’ After we lost that first set, I was like, ‘Holy crap, we could get swept and all I have is two sets.’ ”

But she was done worrying about disappointment and tarnished legacies.

Despite the postseason excitement and joy, she had accepted that her time was up and that it was time for her career, and a storied four years at Michigan, to end.

When asked if she will miss playing with her teammates, especially close friend redshirt junior Claire McElheny, Alex responded:

“Yeah, I will, but I’m really glad that I’m on my side of it and not her side of it.”

“You don’t want another season?” I asked.

“Nope, not really.”

***

“I got into his car one time in the middle of his sophomore year, and I said ‘How is college life going, son?’ And he looked at me and said, “Dad, I don’t go to college. I go to school and I play basketball. They know where I am at every moment. I’m not a normal college student.’ ” — Matt Douglass, Feb. 12, 2012

March 13 — Three days before the Wolverines matched up against Ohio in their first game of the NCAA Tournament, chatter and excitement filled the locker room, but Stuart was as emotionally stoic as ever.

“As a senior, there’s a little more urgency from my standpoint and Zack’s standpoint. But I don’t think there is more pressure because people are still picking us to lose against Ohio.”

Stuart was not hanging on the accomplishment of winning a Big Ten Championship and earning a four-seed. He was just determined to perform better in the NCAA Tournament than he performed in the Big Ten Tournament. He knew the team needed him to play well.

Against Minnesota and Ohio State, he had been anxious. He played outside of himself and he pressed too much. He tried to do everything, he tried to do too much — something he thought he was too experienced for after four years.

“That’s what the pressure of senior year will do to you sometimes.”

Three days before he would put on the Michigan uniform for the last time, Stuart said nothing about his career ending. No reminiscing, no nostalgia, no talk of memories made at Michigan. He emphasized that there was no difference between this year and last year. No extra pressure, he insisted, to perform as a senior.

There was no doubt in his mind that he had multiple games left in his career.

“I’m more focused than worried.”

IT’S OVER

“A lot of times, athletes want to continue to play, maybe not even out of desire of playing, but because they don’t know what else to do. And they don’t see themselves in any other way than as an athlete. I’ve thought all along that Alex has a great self-image about herself, irrelevant of volleyball. I think it’s really rare in high-level athletes. I think its one of the things that will allow her to do really well in her next step of life because she won’t be living in the past or reliving the glory days.” – Mark Rosen, Michigan volleyball coach, Oct. 26, 2011

January 12 — Alex sat slouched on a couch in Espresso Royale on State Street.

It had been one month since she had last slipped into a Michigan uniform. One month since she had valiantly tried to lead the Wolverines to a comeback victory against Florida.

But her effort wasn’t enough. She floundered through the first two sets — hitting just three kills — and the Wolverines lost both of them. In the third set, she tallied 10 kills, but they weren’t enough. The Gators won again and advanced to the Elite Eight. Mary Wise, the Florida volleyball coach, would later remark in her postgame interview that Alex might have had 50 kills had the match gone on any longer.

Sitting on that brown leather couch, she recounted the match.

“We didn’t play very well in the first two sets. I thought, ‘This isn’t the way I want to go out in my last game.’ I didn’t want to go out on a sour note, so finishing off that third set and playing well was something that was important. Obviously, we needed to win that third set to stay alive.

As she shook hands with her opponents and walked off a volleyball court for the final time ever, the emotions set in — anger, sadness, happiness.

Alex also felt a sense of relief to no longer have to depend on her achy body — she had battled back spasms, sprained ankles and a sprained left shoulder throughout the season. Ultimately, injuries were the reason she abandoned the thought of playing professionally.

“I gave the season everything I had mentally, physically and emotionally — there isn’t anything left that I can give. I gave it the best effort I could, but I’m glad it’s over.”

Once again the past stood to recede. Alex couldn’t remember much from her high-school playing days and wondered if her college memories would fade too.

Sitting in Espresso Royale, she wanted to remember her passion for volleyball. Looking back at the season as whole, she wished it had been more successful. She was frustrated and disappointed that her senior season, the year that was supposed to be her best, was hindered by injuries. The “what ifs” run rampant through her head.

“Right now I’m struggling — I’m remembering all the bad things. I just don’t think that I’m exactly happy with how the season went, and I’m just struggling with putting those negative emotions away and just letting it go.”

At the end of Alex’s Michigan volleyball career, she was ranked second all-time in the program’s history in kills (1,618), ranked fourth all-time in aces (152), and holds the record for most single-game aces (9). She was a part of three teams that reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. And as one of only four players in the program’s history to be selected as an All-American, her name will forever hang on a banner in the rafters of Cliff Keen Arena.

But at that moment, Alex just wanted to have some time away from volleyball. She knows it will be tough to give up volleyball completely, so she helps out at a volleyball clinic a few times a week to ease the separation anxiety.

“I think it’s a good thing and it’s helping me with those emotions. It still allows me to be involved with the game somewhat, but not too involved. It’s something that I would like to be able to do for a long time in terms of giving back to the sport because it’s given me so much.”

Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen said that after the season ended, quite a few agents contacted him with an interest in representing Alex. But with a job at Pepsi locked down for the following year, Alex was ready to start a new era of her life — one that won’t revolve around volleyball.

“Its one of those things that I’ve just readied myself for, and it didn’t come as a complete shock. I was still sad, but I was ready for (my career) to end so it didn’t hit me too hard.”

She paused, recognizing the magnitude of her thoughts. Her voice remained steady, and her eyes softened their gaze.

“It’s something that I’ll be grateful for, but it took its course and it lasted four years. I’m happy with the way it went, and it’s over now.”

***

“They try to call us student-athletes, but we’re athlete-students. There’s no way around it — we’re athletes first. It’s a job, completely a job. You’re scrutinized, and everything that you do is magnified.” Stuart Douglass, March 28, 2012

March 28 — Clang.

The basketball ricocheted off the rim. Stuart shot hoops on a cloudy and windy afternoon at Allmendinger Park, where he had agreed to meet for a photo shoot. This is the court he came to play at with fellow senior Corey Person during the past summer when Crisler Arena was under construction.

He’s spent the last four years shooting inside the comforts of a multimillion dollar arena with a nice hardwood floor and sturdy baskets, yet an outdoor court felt natural to him. The paved court, the outdoor elements, the old, rusty hoop — it reminded him of being a kid, a simpler time when basketball was just a sport that he loved.

A group of teenagers were playing 3-on-3 at the other end of the court. Though they recognized him when he first appeared, it took a few minutes for one of the teenagers to muster up the courage to walk over and say something,

“Hey, can we get him on our team?” he jokingly asked.

No one knew how to respond. Our heads turned towards Stuart, who was just as caught off guard.

“Yeah, sure.”

Smiling, he added:

“But as long as you guys don’t make fun of me. I haven’t played in over a week.”

The boys laughed. This was Stuart, at ease without the pressure of the fans, the media, the University.

After the shoot, Stuart sat down on a bench beside the court and recalled his last game.

“I gave it my all in every single game that I played, but there was just something different in (that game), especially towards the end when it was getting close and all these emotions were starting to set in. There was just something different, it’s hard to really put it into words.”

And as the buzzer sounded at 9:27 p.m., and Stuart walked off the court for the last time as a Wolverine, the reality, the loss, finally hit him.

“I was just telling myself, ‘It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, it wasn’t supposed to end like this.’ It’s not how I pictured it in my mind. I thought that the third time was going to be a charm for us, in terms of being in the NCAA Tournament, but sometimes life just hands you lessons like that.

“(In previous years,) you could go back into the locker room and tell yourself that you could use this as motivation for the next season, but I couldn’t do it then.”

Then came acceptance — and a self-awareness that even made him smile.

“It was really disappointing and there was sadness for a few hours, but then I remember starting to laugh a little bit because I didn’t know how to handle it. It’s almost like losing someone close to you, something that you’ve been so familiar with.”

Now, with the end behind him, Stuart felt liberated.

“There was definitely a sense of relief, there’s no ignoring that. It’s weird to feel that way. Just to have all that pressure off and not having to worry about the scrutiny from all different angles — that’s another thing that’s hard to put into words. The pressure is off in terms of dealing with the strains of a season. It was kind of nice.”

Though Stuart was unsatisfied with his last few games, he’s happy with his accomplishments at Michigan.

He was a part of three NCAA Tournament teams and helped resurrect a forgotten program. He hit his fair share of big shots, and in his last year, he played a significant role in Michigan’s first Big Ten Championship since 1986. He ranks fifth all-time in three-pointers made with 205 and never missed a game his entire Michigan career. Some games he started, other games he didn’t, but he played a part in all 136 Michigan games since he arrived here four years ago — that puts him at the top of the program.

“If I never play again, (I’ll be) peacefully happy. I could have had better stats if I played somewhere else, not in the Big Ten — I’ve thought about that before, and I think that it’s natural. But I wanted to play in the Big Ten.”

He interrupts himself, searching for the right words.

“It really just came down to proving people wrong. I feel like ever since I got the Michigan scholarship, people have said that I shouldn’t be in the Big Ten, so from that standpoint I’m happy — but I want to keep playing.”

Stuart had taken the last two weeks to step away from basketball, to rest his body and reenergize, but it was a lot harder than he expected.

“You have all this time on your hands that you don’t know really know what to do with. You try to take time off, but you just get bored. It’s a weird feeling.”

He’s still thirsty. He wants to know what it’s like to play basketball without the pressures of classes. And he wants to prove — to all those people who said he would never make it to the Big Ten and to those who say he can’t play professionally — that he can continue his career elsewhere. But most of all, he wants to prove it to himself. He wants to prove to himself that all the sacrifices he made were worth it. He wants to play as long as he’s capable of competing at an elite level.

Regret, he said, is a hard thing to deal with.

***

For Stuart and Alex, it’s not just a sport that they’re giving up — it’s a way of life, a culture. It’s a lengthy period of their life that they have devoted to excellence in athletics.

For Alex, she’s walking away from Michigan — from the sport she loves — hoping to give it all back, one day at a time. She’s headed to Indianapolis, starting a job in sales and management for Pepsi in early June and hoping to find a club team that she could lend assistance to.

For Stuart, he leaves Michigan with a sense of uncertainty and faith — hoping to keep playing the sport he loves overseas but not knowing if he’ll ever step on the court for a professional basketball organization. With a degree in economics, he’ll have other career options. But he wants to drain every last ounce out of basketball before he embarks on a new path, possibly in the financial world.

It’s tough for him to say how long he will give himself before he decides to pursue another profession.

In the middle of February, sitting at a table in the Caribou Coffee on Stadium and Packard, I asked Nancy and Matt Douglass how tough they thought it would be for Stuart when he finally stopped playing basketball competitively. Though the response was focused on Stuart, Nancy could have been talking about any number of athletes graduating from Michigan.

“I can’t imagine what it will be like. It’s one of those things that until you walk a mile in those shoes, I can’t answer what that’ll be like. And I never will, because I’ve never done it.”