The 6-foot-5 middle blocker floats toward the net as if she were on a string, her powerful right arm striking the ball at the perfect height.
The ball comes crashing down from a seemingly impossible angle, landing with a thunderous smack between six Illinois players, just a few feet from the net. It’s not clear whether any of them actually saw it come down. In fact, as the ball bounces into the stands, the Fighting Illini might be thankful the floor absorbed the impact and not them.
Abby Cole doesn’t thump her chest, throw her hands up in triumph or taunt her opponents on the other side of the net. She turns straight to her teammates, offering each one of them a high-five before indulging in a celebratory cheer together.
The sophomore middle blocker is currently playing the best volleyball of her life. But she won’t revel in her success.
She ranks among the Big Ten’s best in hitting percentage and kills and won back-to-back Big Ten Player of the Week honors in October. But Cole simply wasn’t raised to be proud.
She has the potential to be one of the greatest Wolverines to ever step on the court. But she doesn’t care about that, nor is she likely aware. She turns to her teammates first because she doesn’t want her story to be defined by personal success.
Her story isn’t one of pure athletic dominance — it’s defined by hard work, strong principles and unrelenting faith.
* * *
Cole grew up in the small beach town of Grand Haven, Michigan, right on the shores of Lake Michigan. She was born into a Christian home, where her parents molded her core beliefs from a young age. From her childhood to her present life at Michigan, Cole’s faith has been the driving force of her journey.
“If I could have someone describe me, I’d want them to say, ‘She’s someone who lives by what she believes,’” Cole said.
When she left home for college on the other side of the state, Cole initially struggled with the transition. In addition to the typical college pressures of academics and living away from home for the first time, Cole began her collegiate volleyball career playing out of position on the right side after playing middle blocker her entire life.
And to cope with the demands of life as a student-athlete, Cole turned to the same place she always has: her faith.
Shortly after arriving on campus, Cole found a home with the organization known as Athletes in Action (AIA). The group aims to bring together Christian student-athletes, helping them grow in their faith and apply it both within and without the confines of their sports. According to Cole, the organization has completely transformed her college experience.
Since becoming a member of AIA, Cole has worked to ensure her actions on and off the court align with her strong moral convictions.
Off the court, she visits C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital every Thursday, developing close bonds with families and working hard to brighten days. It’s not uncommon for Michigan student-athletes to do humanitarian work, but Cole has embraced the moral obligations of being a Wolverine.
“I remember when I was a little kid and I thought that college athletes were the coolest thing in the world — doesn’t matter if you’re D-III or D-I, you’re just amazing,” Cole said.
Now, it’s not uncommon for Cole to run into children only to have them gleefully exclaim, “Oh my gosh, that’s Abby Cole!”
“I love that kind of stuff,” Cole said. “I love just getting around to see everyone. Mott is the coolest thing. It’s the one night a week my priorities are refocused.”
* * *
Michigan coach Mark Rosen often preaches the idea that character consistency is the easiest way to build trust — a good teammate will conduct herself in the same manner no matter the situation. And as Cole works to maintain this consistency, she’s starting to embrace her purpose on the court.
“I believe that everything happens for a reason and I’m here for a reason and a purpose,” Cole said. “I’m not playing for myself — I’m playing for my teammates, I’m playing for my coaches, I’m playing for my family, I’m playing for the block ‘M.’… I’m just so blessed and so thankful to be where I am.”
Cole’s faith-driven humility is evident even on social media. Her Twitter bio is adorned with the hashtags #AO1 (audience of one) and #IAmSecond — two brief statements with the same general religious message. At a university where student-athletes are put on a platform and play in front of thousands of people, Cole relies on these phrases to “dumb things down” and put everything in perspective.
“Volleyball’s very important to her, but she understands the bigger picture of life, that this is a game and the perspective to keep it in,” Rosen said. “I think she’s just somebody who has a tremendous amount of character, and that’s a core value for us that we look for in all of our players.”
Now in her second year, Cole has more than settled into her starting role. Part of it is a result of moving back to her natural position, but her heightened perspective is just as important.
* * *
The heart of Cole’s philosophy is her humility, but its foundation is based on an extraordinary work ethic.
Of course, it helps to be taller than everyone else.
During routine childhood doctor’s visits, Cole was measured against charts that displayed the spectrum of heights for her age. Since birth, Cole has never even been on the chart — her height has always been above even the chart’s “above average” range.
Cole remembers going out to restaurants with her family when she was seven years old. Occasionally, hosts or hostesses would refuse to give Cole a kids’ menu. “Sorry, it’s for 12 and under only,” they would say.
It wasn’t long before Cole turned to sports to exploit her height advantage. Basketball was her first love — from playing with her dad in her driveway to playing on her middle and high school teams. Her height didn’t just make the game easy — it affected others’ opinions of her before they even saw her play.
And if it weren’t for her height, Cole may never have gotten the chance to evolve into the volleyball player she is today. When she started playing volleyball in the sixth grade, she struggled with a lack of coordination — an issue she wouldn’t work out until well into high school.
Cole wasn’t necessarily talented yet, but in a Midwest beach town and volleyball hotspot, it was her height that literally put her head and shoulders above the rest. To this day, she remains convinced that she only made her high school varsity team as a freshman because she was 6-foot-3 and lanky — “I was literally a creature,” she joked.
But an uncoordinated basketball-player-turned-middle-blocker couldn’t have been discovered by the University of Michigan based on height alone.
“Her work ethic is phenomenal,” Rosen said. “Every day she’s working her butt off to get better. I think with her, the ceiling has no limit because of how hard she’s willing to work and how selfless she’s willing to be with the talent that she has.”
Beginning with a breakout sophomore season of high school — especially during the spring period of travel volleyball crucial to recruiting — Cole transformed herself from a gawky adolescent into a powerful, precise attacker with impeccable hand-eye coordination.
But even as she puts her crafted talent on display, it’s Cole’s selfless play and steady temperament that has Rosen raving about her.
“There’s a lot of people out there that have great gifts,” Rosen said. “But they don’t necessarily have the character to maximize those gifts.”
* * *
In the middle of a breakout sophomore season for the second time in her life, Cole’s focus remains not on herself, but on her team.
Cole hasn’t just helped her team by taking on a heavier offensive workload — she’s revitalized a very young team struggling with a number of injuries. More than anything, it’s the passion and selflessness she has shown on the floor that has motivated her teammates.
“In the past, she’s held back, but this year she’s just let her passion show,” said senior setter Lexi Dannemiller. “That’s really helpful because it lets other players show their passion too … You can let loose and really go after it.”
As a freshman playing out of position last year, Cole was timid and reserved. Playing on the right side, she wasn’t required to be as vocal or involved as the upperclassmen in the middle who were running the blocking game. Instead of throwing the punches, she was content to roll with them.
But after spending a year absorbing knowledge of the game — especially from former Michigan middle blocker Jen Cross, whose consistency and experience forced Cole to the right side — Cole was more than happy to accept an expanded role this season.
Back in the middle, Cole has brought back the visible energy that used to come out only when she was playing basketball. Instead of letting her teammates do the work, she makes her presence known on the court, verbally directing traffic and putting herself and her teammates in positions to succeed.
Her expanded role also requires her to frequently call for sets from Dannemiller, the team’s unquestioned leader. But even then, Cole finds a way to make a seemingly selfish act mutually beneficial — she offered Dannemiller chocolate on the team bus on the way to a match at Rutgers.
“She knows that chocolate is my weakness,” Dannemiller said. “But it helps that she’s actually getting kills, so I want to set her.”
With her increased offensive opportunities, the personal accolades are mounting for Cole. But her humble personality and the general team-centric nature of volleyball have allowed her teammates to thrive as well.
Rosen cites Cole as the perfect example of someone who understands that no one player can do it alone. He applauds her willingness to reach out to her setters, passers and defenders, allowing them to share in the success.
“It’s great to have great stats and get these great accolades, but I don’t really want to be remembered by that,” Cole said. “I want to make a positive difference in the culture of Michigan. A good teammate, God-driven, always puts the team before herself … I want to be remembered for my character.”
Added Rosen: “As a coach, that’s awesome. I just think she’s really kind of an ideal player when it comes to keeping the team first and the team mentality a priority.”
* * *
Even as he watches her practice every day, Rosen has no idea where Cole’s ceiling might be.
“She has unlimited potential, because again, her gifts are amazing,” Rosen said. “I know she still has a lot of room to get better, because technically she’s still figuring stuff out on a day-to-day basis. She’s tireless in how hard she’ll work at it.”
Cole has plenty of time left to establish her dominance on the court. But she’s proving time and again that she wants her legacy to be grander than her sport.
That’s why, when she was subbed out near the end of the crushing five-set loss to Illinois, she became the most animated player on the bench, shouting words of encouragement until the final point.
That’s why she was visibly unhappy walking off the court, even though she finished the match with a team-high 20 kills.
That’s why Cole let her forlorn face illustrate the same idea she has preached since she first crushed a volleyball into the stands: she is always second.