Nov. 17—Want to purchase today's print edition? Here's a map of single-copy locations.
CHAMPAIGN — Ryan Fitzgerald first noticed this during Bri Struck's high school volleyball career at Heritage.
Whatever happened on a particular play — good, bad or indifferent — Struck was moving on.
"Bri wants the ball," said Fitzgerald, Heritage's volleyball coach. "She wants the opposition to serve to her, to hit at her, to set the hitters in front of her, and she wants her setter to get her the ball as much as possible. She rarely makes mistakes, but when she does, her mentality is always next ball."
Cliff Hastings has gotten used to that aspect the last two seasons coaching Struck at Parkland.
"Bri really bought in her freshman year to make changes on and off the court to make her a higher-level athlete for the longer-term goal of being highly successful during and post-Parkland," Hastings said. "When a kid makes that commitment, she's going to plateau a bit her freshman year, as there's so many changes she's trying to make at once. But if she can stay committed to herself and the process, she can really make all the big changes she hopes for."
For Struck herself, though, making sure she moved on after a play or a match is what has made this fall such a revelation for the 6-foot outside hitter the Cobras rely so heavily on.
"The most important thing for me this year has been realizing that my identity is not in my sport," Struck said. "I think that it's easy in collegiate athletics to become consumed with your sport, which leads to your mood and life revolving around it."
Life is good for Struck and her Parkland teammates right now. The Cobras (46-4) are two wins away from a fifth NJCAA Division II national championship after Parkland defeated Des Moines Area on Thursday night to advance to Friday afternoon's semifinals at the Alliant Energy Powerhouse Arena in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
How Parkland is in this position again can be tied to how well Struck has played this season. She entered the national tournament with a nation-leading 578 kills and has become the Cobras' go-to offensive option.
"The key has been finding my worth in who God says I am, not what the statistics do, which makes it so much easier to play and to love my teammates," Struck said. "Keeping my focus on Him instead of myself is so freeing, especially in my sport. I think that success can be defined by winning championships, but for me, it's also about the relationships I've made and the girls who I get to love every day."
Struck stood out in high school at Heritage, but playing Class 1A volleyball at a rural southern Champaign County high school didn't necessarily mean the success would translate once she reached college.
Except it has. And perhaps even exceeded what Struck thought was possible when she arrived at Parkland. But it hasn't surprised her old high school coach.
"I think what she has done at Parkland is exactly what I thought she would do, and I mean that in the best possible way," Fitzgerald said. "I've always thought the sky was the limit for her, and when you have someone who is so talented, but also takes the time to put in as much effort as she does, there is no limit to how successful she can be. At Heritage, it was just myself and my assistant, Emilee, providing feedback. When you get to the collegiate level and have the resources and viewpoints that Cliff and his staff are able to provide, there is such an opportunity for growth in your game, and Bri has taken full advantage of that."
Struck's success is also a talking point Fitzgerald can use with his current players and players still coming up to play for the Hawks in future seasons.
"You don't have to go to a high school with 1,300 students. You can be a great athlete with just 130 kids," Fitzgerald said. "But more importantly, I think it has set an example for the younger players as well. Bri and her classmates wanted to win, and put in the work to win, both mentally and physically. I talk about them quite a bit when I'm trying to motivate my teams. They've set the bar and everyone is trying to get back to that."
Struck's physical nature and athleticism stood out to Hastings when Struck was still in high school. Her mental growth, however, is what has pleased Hastings these past two seasons.
"To know Bri is to know she's more mature than most adults one is going to meet," Hastings said. "She speaks and processes information at a very high level. Bri simply needed a boost to find that inner confidence and unlock some of those great attributes off the court into her on-court play."
The memories Struck has made on the court the last two seasons sticks with her. But so does developing relationships with her teammates, from Abbie Skaggs' sense of humor to Maliah Sparks' laugh and Landry Warfel's dance moves, among others.
"So many more things that each of my teammates do that bring me so much joy," Struck said. "Winning games is super fun, but getting to win with people I love and appreciate is what has made my time at Parkland so memorable. My experience at Parkland has taught me so much about both volleyball and myself, and I am so grateful for all of it."