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.
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“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.