As a fifth-year senior with just six career starts before last weekend, Candace Gay had become accustomed to playing the roles of both motivator and teacher. But, when junior middle blocker Megan Bowman went down with an ankle injury prior the Purdue game last Friday, Michigan coach Mark Rosen turned to Gay for some relief.
She provided much more than that.
Gay set a career-high with seven blocks against Illinois on Saturday. She had 13 kills and totaled nine blocks, which led the team over the weekend.
“That’s always been an Achilles’ heel for her: her blocking,” Rosen said. “For her to get thrown into that environment and then go out there and lead us in blocks was awesome. That’s a testament of how hard she’s worked to make her weaknesses into her strengths and be ready when the opportunity arose.”
Bowman’s shoes aren’t easy to fill, either. She’s ranked seventh on Michigan’s all-time blocks list with 352 rejections, and she has started 76 matches in her career.
But Gay is no stranger to challenges on the court. Purdue and Illinois were her first two starts of the year, and she has seen limited playing time in her career at Michigan. But she knows her role, and she exceeded expectations yet again this weekend.
“I basically did what I always do – I played really hard,” Gay said. “I jumped high, went fast and did whatever I could do to help the team.”
Gay’s biggest impact wasn’t felt on the court this weekend, though. Her presence off the court with the young, struggling Wolverines (4-8 Big Ten, 10-11 overall) is what sets her apart.
“There were a couple of years where in practice she was the only other middle blocker besides our starting middles,” Rosen said. “So, when we did any kind of scrimmages, she’d be on the other side, having to play front-row the entire time. Normally they play through rotations. After practice, she would just be dripping with sweat, working twice as hard as all the other middles – and she never balked.
“She’s a very unique player from that standpoint, where she’s all about the team, all about what she can do to help her teammates. And I think they see that, and that’s a great example to have in the gym every day.”
Even though Gay started just one match last season, her parents traveled to every game – home and away – to watch the Wolverines play. Rosen thinks her parents’ dedication to the team effort rubbed off on Gay, whose focus on putting team goals first is undeniable.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Rosen said. “If she played, hey, that’s great. But, if she didn’t, (her parents were there to support the team). – They’re just very unselfish, team-oriented people.”
Gay played four years of varsity volleyball at Sacred Heart Academy in Detroit and also competed with a club team, the University of Michigan-Dearborn Victors, winning a state championship with the latter in 2000. Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Rosen’s crew took notice, but Gay originally had no desire to play at the collegiate level.
“I was just playing because I loved it so much, it was so much fun and I was good at it,” Gay said. “When Mark recruited me, I discovered that maybe I can play at that high of a level. That’s when I decided to play collegiate volleyball.”
Said Rosen: “It’s a really big step for her, coming from a small school to competing and training at a Big Ten level, where there’s a big time commitment. She’s a very well-rounded person; school’s very important to her, social life’s very important to her – she just has a lot of outside interests, and we didn’t know how she committed she would be long-term. She’s never been anything but 100-percent committed to our program; she works her tail off every day.”
With Bowman’s return to the lineup doubtful for the Minnesota game this Friday and the Iowa contest on Saturday, Rosen will start Gay again with the hope that she will provide the same spark as she did this past weekend. The Wolverines need to win five of eight matches to clinch a .500 record and qualify for the postseason.
“We need to buckle down, since we really have our backs against the wall,” Gay said. “We need to work on the things that are hurting our game