Volleyball rarely goes as planned, not a play, not a match and certainly not a career.

Ashley Shook knows.

But the volleyball gods, who sometimes can be cruel and sometimes have a sense of humor, have this way of helping those who help themselves. And Shook has done just that to create her own new and different blueprint.

Now she’s happily in her second year playing beach volleyball and working toward her master’s degree at Washington, with an eye on becoming a coach. Which was the last thing one could have imagined five years ago.

“I’m loving it. I definitely lost the love for the game for a while, two years, three years, but I’m loving it again,” Shook said. “I look forward to practice, and I enjoy the ups and downs more.

“That’s one of the big things. 

“I think it was (Donnie Maib, the director for athletic performance at Texas) who told me this, that you have to find the joy of all the situations you’re in. I think I lost joy for a long time, and now it’s back. I love it.”

Ashley Shook during our interview in Seattle

In a nutshell, Shook was the next great setter coming out of Chicago (remember Lauren Carlini, who also played for Sports Performance?). A 6-foot-1 all-everything — and a member of a star-studded 2017 VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 — Shook was headed to Texas. Oh, the Fab 50 setters that year: Madison Lilley was headed to Kentucky, where she went on to win a national championship; Sydney Hilley to Wisconsin, and also an NCAA title; Gabby Blossom to Penn State. Also, Nicklin Hames, who came so close to winning it all at Nebraska; and Marlie Monserez, who went to Florida and is now playing beach at UCLA.

Go back to 2017, when Texas had the top recruiting class in the country, with Shook, Lexi Sun, Brionne Butler and Olivia Zelon.

From Texas, after announcing that class: 

At Plainfield Central High School, Shook was named Southwest Prairie-All-Conference all four years, was named Champaign News-Gazette All-State First Team, Joliet Herald-News All-Area First Team and Voyager Media All-Area.

“Ashley comes in as the complete setter,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “She has had excellent training and understands the game at a very high level for an incoming freshman. She too has the ability to change the game with her setting, attacking and blocking. She will be asked to take the reigns from the very first day she steps on campus and has the mindset to step in and do that.”

Texas produced this video, Getting to Know: Ashley Shook.

In that same 2017 Fab 50, Sun was the No. 1 player in the country, and Butler was No. 2. Butler had a tremendous career — a VolleyballMag.com first-team All-American in 2019 and 2020, and a second-teamer last fall. Sun transferred to Nebraska after her freshman year and became an integral part of the Huskers, but last fall, as a fifth-year senior, ended up being a reserve. Zelon quit volleyball after her freshman year.

Shook? 

Well, it’s complicated.

She did, in fact, take over as the setter in 2017 and averaged 10.84 assists per set, was third on the team in digs (2.28/set) and had 58 blocks. Texas went 16-0 in the Big 12 and finished 27-3 after losing to Stanford in a regional final of the NCAA Tournament.

In 2018, Jhenna Gabriel began to get into the setter mix as Texas finished 23-5, 15-1 in the Big 12, and again lost in a regional final, this time to BYU. But by then Gabriel had taken over as setter.

Ashley Shook and her sister Katie at Texas

In 2019, Texas finished 23-4 and 15-1 but was stunned at home by Louisville in the third round of the NCAA. An injured Shook played sparingly, in just 15 sets all season.

Staying positive

Through it all, Shook never pouted.

“Inside I was definitely hurting, but I do pride myself in being unselfish,” Shook said. “And we were taught a lot in club growing up about being a great teammate no matter the circumstances. I pride myself in that. 

“I saw other people throwing like pouty fits when things weren’t going their way, and that’s always bothered me. I can be upset on the inside but I can still cheer my teammates and still help us achieve our goals.”

It didn’t help that Shook had ankle issues from the time she was a freshman and then really hurt it as a junior.

Things didn’t change in the COVID-hampered fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, when Texas went 27-2, 16-0 in the Big 12. 

“I genuinely thought that I had overcome my struggles and gotten my pop back,” Shook said. “I didn’t want to harm myself by not being a good teammate. If I hadn’t sprained my ankle, I think I would have started again. 

“And at that point, I was trying to find my love for the game again, and then COVID happened, and I barely had a senior year.”

Shook left Texas after the fall season. She watched the spring 2021 national semifinals from Seattle, as Texas beat Hilley and Wisconsin before losing to Lilley and Kentucky in the NCAA title match. 

Shook graduated from Texas in three-and-a-half years with a 3.75 grade-point average in Human Dimensions of Organization — “It’s kind of like solving people problems in the workplace” — with a minor in business. 

“I was ready to move on and start the next chapter and thought beach would be fun,” said Shook, who had never played beach. “I was graduating and (originally) thought I would go play overseas but didn’t want to do that anymore and decided that maybe I could try beach somewhere. It was becoming more of a trend that people were doing that with their fifth year.”

Reverse recruiting

But remember that kid from Chicago who probably could have played at any number of the nation’s top programs? This was a different kind of recruiting process — in reverse.

“I honestly reached out to a lot of schools,” Shook said. “LSU was my first choice.”

Shook recalled that Fran Flory, the now retired LSU coach, was one of the first coaches to send her a recruiting letter, when she was in the eighth grade. Plus, Shook’s sister, Katie, will be a senior libero at Alabama. But LSU, because of the extra year players got from the pandemic and an influx of other indoor players wanting to follow the same path, had no money or room for Shook. 

She was hoping for some scholarship money, and “I wanted to go somewhere where I could experience playing again.”

Shook laughed about the new recruiting experience.

“It was so weird, because I was so sought after when I was like in the eighth grade and freshman year. And now I had to reach out to all these different places telling them I wanted to play beach, and they’d ask for film. So I had to make up some, go to a sand court and video.” 

She laughed again.

“I’ve been meaning to go back and watch those videos I put together, because I knew nothing about beach. That was a process.”

One thing that helped was that Cat McCoy, a former Texas player, also went to Washington to play a season of beach in 2019, after her indoor career ended.

Shook spoke to Keegan Cook, Washington’s indoor coach, by phone.

“I knew of her and heard good things about her,” Cook said. “Obviously I knew her as a player, but what Jerritt (Elliott, the Texas coach) spoke to was who she was as a leader and a teammate. ”

Shook ultimately landed a graduate-student beach scholarship and will get her degree in Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership. McCoy went the same route, and “I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and that was the major she was in, super cool,” Shook said. “I like solving people problems.”

In 2021, after transferring and with relatively no training, Shook played in her first beach season and started every match at No. 4 for the Huskies. She had various partners and finished 5-13 in duals, 7-20 overall. 

As it turned out, there was going to be more to her time at Washington than just with the beach team. She volunteered to help with the indoor team, and that role grew from just being around to actually filling in as the interim director of operations last fall.

“She’s got a lot of hats right now,” Cook said in October. “She’s with us in all parts of the day and still has her responsibilities as a student and an athlete, but any time she has, she’s in the gym watching practice or doing recruiting visits. Impressive. Impressive to see a young person be good in so many spaces.”

Shook also helped with team travel, and well, more than she realized. She said she set up paddle boarding for recruits and trips on a seaplane, sightseeing and ensuring they went to the right restaurants.

“It’s crazy. I knew there was a lot going on to keep the show running, but I never realized how much there was,” Shook said with a laugh. “There is a lot of stuff.”

When she was at Texas, the director of ops was Nathan Mendoza, “and we hardly ever had anything go wrong, so shout out to him because there’s a lot you have to plan, for the 17 girls on the team plus the staff and just a lot of things to think about.”

Ashley Shook playing for Washington against LMU earlier in March/Owen Main, Red Box Pictures

This season, Washington is 3-3 in beach duals. Shook, playing on courts 3 and 4 with freshman Maeve Griffin, is 1-5. This week, the Huskies go to Arizona State and Arizona, where they’ll play Stanford, Grand Canyon, Arizona, Oregon, Cal and USC.

The bet here is that Shook will be watching all those coaches. She has figured that part out, for sure.

Catching the bug

She first caught the coaching bug while working summer camps at Texas.

“I never had a dream job because I spent all of my hours growing up either at school or in volleyball,” Shook said.

But working with the kids made something click.

“It was fun to make an impact on someone’s life, and I know how all the coaches I had had such an influence on molding me into who I am today.”

When she got to Seattle, Shook coached a few nights a week with a girls club, Washington Volleyball Academy.

And that’s where all the ups and downs come in.

“I agree. I think it makes a big difference,” she said. “I think I had a high volleyball IQ as a player, but I think I’ll be able to relate to my future players.”

As it turns out, those future players are at LSU. The volleyball gods had a plan all along.

After Flory retired, LSU hired Tonya Johnson, a former LSU player and assistant coach. Johnson was the associate head coach and recruiting coordinator at Texas during Shook’s time there. When the school year at Washington ends, Shook will head to Baton Rouge as a volunteer assistant coach.

“We were lucky to have Ashley be a part of our program,” said Elliott, the Texas coach. “She is an incredible human that made great impacts to our team’s play and program. It has been fun watching her success on the beach. It is my hope that she goes into coaching because she is empowering and will pass that on to the next generation of players.”

Shook is ready.

“I’ve always been good at the tactics and strategy of the game, like being a setter and knowing how much you can manipulate the game,” Shook said. 

“I know how much I’ve been shaped the past couple of years. I know college years are big in figuring out who you are and all that stuff. I’ve done a lot since I was 18 and am a totally different person now, and it would be super cool to have that impact on other people.

“I’ve had such a unique story, and I know what it’s like to be a starter and, ooooh, be so big, and then I also know what it’s like to be riding the bench and get to go in every now and then. I have a lot of experience on both sides.”

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