At the beginning of this season, Michigan
volleyball coach Mark Rosen announced his team’s
near-unanimous decision for its captains. Fifth-year senior Sarah
Allen listened, not expecting to be one of the two names
called.

Sitting next to Allen, fifth-year senior Lisa Gamalski —
one of the team’s most vocal leaders — seemed like an
obvious choice. So did the team’s other senior, Jennifer
Gandolph — Michigan’s all-time leader in kills, digs
and attempts.

But to Allen’s surprise, it was her name along with
Gamalski’s that Rosen called. And looking at Allen’s
development in the Michigan program over the past five seasons, no
one deserved the honor more.

A walk-on who earned her way to a scholarship, Allen epitomizes
hard work and determination, with “the best go-get-it work
ethic” on the team, according to Gamalski. That work ethic
has enabled Allen to become one of Michigan’s most consistent
and respected players.

 

 

Rosen still remembers the exact place on Penn State’s Rec
Hall floor where he was standing when Allen gave him a videotape of
her playing volleyball. The summer before her senior year of high
school, Allen had attended the volleyball camp Rosen and his wife,
Michigan associate head coach Leisa Rosen, conducted at
Michigan.

Rosen noticed Allen immediately.

“She was just a neat kid,” Rosen said. “I just
liked her personality. And right off the bat, you could see she was
ripped — physically, a real strong kid with a lot of
definition — and a good competitor.”

Just before Michigan traveled to Penn State for a match in 1999,
Allen called Rosen and asked if she could bring him the tape.
Recognizing her as “that kid” from camp, Rosen told
Allen that her attitude would be a great fit for his program. But
Allen — who had been a setter and always played on the right
side — would have to walk on and probably train as a back-row
player.

Even though there were no guarantees, Allen just wanted to play
and came to Michigan focused on getting better. But it wasn’t
easy — she had passed “maybe fifty” balls in high
school and had to quickly learn how to pass at the Division I
level.

“When she came in, we really didn’t know what her
role was going to be,” Rosen said. “But she developed
as a passer and as a defensive player, and I’ve had very few
players in my career that learn those skills. Those are usually
skills that they come in with. She’s really learned (to be) a
ball control player, which is rare.”

Unlike most Michigan volleyball players, Allen was not a
Volleyball Magazine “Fab Fifty” selection or a top-100
recruit. The Mechanicsburg, Penn. native had always been active
— a gymnast and dancer for 10 years — but she
didn’t start playing volleyball until high school. Allen
wasn’t as polished or experienced as everyone else on the
team, and redshirted her freshman year at Michigan. As a result,
Allen was a target and often left practice feeling discouraged.

“The personality of the team then was very different than
it is now,” Allen said. “I don’t like to say it
this way, but if you weren’t very good, (some of the players)
didn’t really accept you.”

But there were two seniors — Alija Pittenger and Shawna
Olson — who did accept Allen and took her under their
collective wing, helping her get through practice and inviting her
to hang out afterward. Their friendship eased Allen’s
transition, but it wasn’t until individual workouts in the
spring that she really felt part of the team. During the 2000
season, the focus was on the core group of players — Allen
practiced, but didn’t receive the one-on-one attention she
needed. In the spring, the coaches divided the team into small
groups and gave every player lots of repetitions. That instruction
— and being able to play in the following preseason —
was a “huge turning point” for Allen.

“I don’t think I even thought I could make an impact
before then,” Allen said.

 

 

In 2002, the NCAA adopted the libero position based on
international rules. The libero is primarily a defensive player,
who digs the ball and then directs the front line as to where the
ball should go. Like an offensive lineman in football or a catcher
in baseball, the libero makes sure everything runs smoothly, but
tends to go unnoticed unless she makes a mistake.

Because of her position in Michigan’s back row, Allen has
been referred to as a garbage collector of sorts — when the
opposing team hits the ball over the net, it is her job to pick it
up and throw it away — leading to comparisons between her and
a certain member of Sesame Street.

“(Sophomore) Erin Cobler’s mom used to always tell
me that I pick up all the garbage off the floor,” Allen said.
“So for my birthday, she got me a watch that has Oscar the
Grouch and a garbage can on it.”

In her first two years at Michigan, Allen had been a defensive
specialist, and her passing and ball control skills were continuing
to improve. Because the libero is more than a defensive specialist,
it seemed the perfect fit for Allen. But in order to earn the role
of libero, Allen had to be a more consistent passer and a more
stable all-around player.

“I had to be better at all the things I was learning new
when I came in,” Allen said. “But I just wanted to
play, so I was doing whatever I could to play.”

Allen continued to focus on passing and defense throughout her
second year, working to change her “raw” style into a
more refined technique.

“There wasn’t anybody in our gym that worked harder
than her during the season and then during the offseason as
well,” Leisa said. “Sarah worked hard every single day,
and grabbed hold of the libero spot to be her identity (as a
player).”

But Allen’s improvement wasn’t constantly an uphill
curve. In her sophomore year, freshman Carrie Ritchie came onto the
team and took Allen’s playing time as defensive specialist.
When the libero position came in the next year, Ritchie started
over Allen, who began to feel like “a waste of
space.”

“It’s frustrating when you know you’re good
enough to play, but there’s someone else better,” Allen
said. “You work really, really hard everyday, but
you’re not getting the same reward.”

After Michigan beat Ohio State at home in October of 2002, Allen
remembers not being able to get excited. She hadn’t played
and didn’t feel like she had been part of the win. Then at
practice the next week, Rosen pulled her aside and stressed just
how much she was needed on the team. A few games later, the
starting libero was injured and Allen had to replace her.

She’s played in every game since.

 

 

Freshman Katie Bruzdzinski remembers being nervous the first
week of practice this year. One day during preseason, she was
sitting in a room with Allen and freshman Mara Martin, and Allen
was telling them what her first year was like and what they could
expect throughout the season.

“I remember her saying, ‘Don’t worry about it,
you’re going to be fine,’” Bruzdzinski said.
“She relaxed us a lot and just really reassured
us.”

Allen also helped Gandolph make the transition to college. When
Gandolph stayed with Allen on her official visit, Allen made sure
she felt fully welcome on the team. In addition to showing Gandolph
what the Michigan volleyball program is like, Allen made an extra
effort to get to know her better.

“I remember every time I was with Sarah, we were at a
different restaurant, getting something different to eat,”
Gandolph said. “I was always with her, and I feel like that
was all we did my whole visit.”

Allen has been able to draw on her negative experiences her
first year to ensure that everyone feels accepted on the team. In
this way, she has always been a leader. But when Allen was given
the starting libero position prior to her junior season, she found
herself having to take on a more substantial role on the team.

Allen has received valuable assistance from her boyfriend
— who she asked to keep anonymous — since they met
almost a year and a half ago.

A former college athlete, he has been able to give Allen advice
on how to be a leader. Though he doesn’t live in the area, he
has seen her play, and he helps her with situations on the court
— especially how to handle a bad match.

In a loss against Illinois two weeks ago, Allen felt like her
mistakes late in the match cost Michigan the win. She talked to her
boyfriend right after the match, who told her that what matters
most to her coaches and teammates — and what will make her a
better leader — is the way she responds.

“He told me that, as long as I go out there and do my best
every time, there’s nothing else I can do,” Allen said.
“I just think he’s been an incredible support for
me.”

Allen is not a cheerleader — she’s too laid back to
give pep talks or get on her teammates all the time. She’s
the last one to arrive at practice — walking in minutes
before it starts — but her coaches and teammates always know
she’ll be there. She stays calm on the court, even when a
match isn’t going well.

But every once in awhile, Allen’s more gregarious side
comes out, especially when there’s a stereo in the locker
room.

“If there’s anything I can say to get us fired up
for a game, it’s nothing like Sarah dancing,” Gamalski
said. “She’s a very good dancer. If she quits her day
job as a volleyball player, she should go be a backup dancer for
Janet Jackson or someone like that. She puts on a good pregame
show.”

Allen can now be herself and know that she is accepted by her
teammates — a reflection of the team’s chemistry, but
also of her own growth and maturity. Before every road trip, Allen
posts a detailed list of what everyone is supposed to bring, and
makes sure no one forgets any of it. According to Rosen,
“that kid” who came to Michigan with so much to learn
about her sport has grown into a “really good teacher.”
Now, she works at the Rosens’ volleyball clinics and camp
— the same camp that Allen herself once attended. Allen plans
to go into medicine, but Rosen believes she would make a good coach
on the side.

“I hope that she has the chance to coach high school or
junior high or club,” Rosen said. “People would really
benefit from working with her.”

It sounds like some people already have.

 

To view this feature as it appears in print, click
” http://www.michigandaily.com/pages/pdf/2004-10-25smback.pdf “>here
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