VolleyballMag.com contributor Jim Dietz, who recently retired as the longtime coach at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois, has a vested interest in the career of Annika Black, now a junior at Eastern Illinois who is on the indoor team and will also play beach. He interviewed his former player for this story:
By Jim Dietz for VolleyballMag.com
Annika Black is a 6-foot-2 left-handed junior and sometimes starter in her first season at Eastern Illinois University, an NCAA Division I school in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Her path is unlike that of few other Division I volleyball players. That’s important to know because her route is available to other athletes in other sports.
Black went to a small high school, Routt, in the town of Jacksonville in central Illinois. Specializing in a single sport was an impossibility.
So Black was a multi-year letter-winner in softball, basketball, and obviously, volleyball.
As stereotypes would have it, Black played most of the time in volleyball as a right-side hitter. This tells you she was the tallest player on the team, and it means there was little training in defense or passing, and she wasn’t going to get set much. Welcome to small-school volleyball.
In the summer of 2018, Black attended a prospect camp with 45 other athletes where she was rated by multiple college coaches on her skills and her physical attributes (shuttle run, block jump, approach jump, wingspan).
As the person who tallied the ratings, I can tell you that Black was in the bottom 20th percentile of those attending. Her overall ability rating suggested that she look at lower-tier NCAA Division III and NAIA schools to take advantage of the positive attributes she had — wingspan and height.
And that was that.
Her high school had an excellent season, relying on two other hitters and using Black only as a blocker and occasional decoy for the “better” hitters.
She made videos, sent links to coaches and over the winter received some “Thanks, but no thanks” emails. More typically, she never got replies.
“I was really worried, stressed I wouldn’t have an opportunity to play anywhere,” Black said. “The D-III schools I talked to weren’t the right fit, there was no sense of belonging.”
And then, at the end of February 2019, I heard from Annika, asking if Lincoln Land would be interested in her being part of the team.
“I contacted Lincoln Land, and you really made me feel wanted, that I had potential, and that I just hadn’t found it yet, but that if I was going to reach for my goal, I could do it through LLCC. It was going to be a place where I could get the opportunity to work on improving and knew the coach would push me and be patient at the same time.”
My first thought was my memory of the prospect camp. My second was the video I’d seen from a match in September. These were not impressions working in her favor.
Still, why not have her come for a tryout or open gym? Seriously, 6-2 left-handed kids don’t grow on trees. Besides, part of the two-year college experience and value is in developing players who aren’t yet ready to compete elsewhere.
So the last week of March 2019, Annika came with her mom on a campus visit and played in an open gym with LLCC players (allowed in junior college) while I watched from our lobby with my assistant and Mrs. Black.
Everything that had been a negative in July 2018 was still there.
The negatives of the September video? Yup, those were there as well.
So when they were ready to leave, I said, “Thanks for coming over. I hope you had fun and that these guys are people you could learn to think of as sisters, and I look forward to hearing from you next week when you tell me you want to be a Logger in the fall.”
My assistant turned to me and bluntly asked, “Are you freakin’ kidding?”
Nope, I wasn’t.
I told her Annika was 6-2, left-handed, and she’d never received daily high-level coaching in her life. I can’t teach 6-2, can’t teach being left-handed, but I loved the work ethic she put into that open gym. It wasn’t just her wanting to impress coaches — she worked hard. Just as important from the perspective of a college coach, I wasn’t using a scholarship.
A week later, Annika accepted the invitation to be a Logger.
That week, she also started private lessons in a conditioning program. She had a couple of dreams. The first was to play college volleyball. Now that she had that, she wanted to prove herself. The second was to someday play Division I volleyball. She wasn’t there — yet. All I told her was “Work hard and things will fall into place,” and that’s what she did.
We started practice August 1 and by the end of the second day, it was obvious she’d be a starter.
“It wasn’t what I expected, I don’t think,” Black said. “I learned a ton. It was weird to go from someone who was ‘just there’ in high school to someone that the coaches called a ‘go-to’ player. I’d never been that before, and they just kept pushing me to find more in ‘the tank.'”
Black not only held her spot all year but also racked up 85 blocks and 366 kills (most ever by a right-side hitter at LLCC).
“I still remember the first week we were doing fundraising before practice started,” she said. “We had a couple open gyms, and it felt like a few of the girls were just looking down on me thinking I couldn’t play, and I wondered if I was in over my head.
“I went into you bawling my eyes out. You reminded me that you recruited me, saw my potential, and that I should focus on doing the best I could and that things would work out. Also, my mom was really supportive and told me the same thing and that helped a lot, too.”
Better still, Black was selected as an NJCAA Academic All-American.
“By the end of that first year, I knew I was better than when I came in and that my dream— that I didn’t think was really realistic — was a possibility. You told me to start reaching out and that there wouldn’t be too many schools that would ignore me because of my height and being left-handed. You gave me a ton of NAIA and D2 schools and some DI. With the DIs, you said not to get hopes up too high because a lot of schools plan recruiting out years in advance, but I started reaching out like you said to do.”
And then … COVID.
“When COVID canceled fall, I thought my chances of moving on were gone,” Black said. “I was so stressed about how things would go if all I had was video from more than a year before! I felt like stuff beyond my control was taking my dream away.
“When we moved to spring, I knew it’d be challenging since it was a shorter season, and everybody was playing at the same time, and that a lot of seniors would be returning and taking possible openings away that maybe could have fit me. It was hard mentally to deal with.”
The pandemic is still causing a great deal of craziness in sports. It forced our fall 2020 season to last spring, and for two-year college athletes, there was a bigger problem. The NCAA decision to give everyone an extra year of eligibility meant many four-year college rosters would be crammed with players.
“The responses to my emails were discouraging, really hard to deal with,” Black said. “Everyone was so sorry, but they had no room, so the rejections made me feel like I did during high school. One said they’d have an opening in a year and recommended I stay at LLCC. I loved volleyball there, but I needed to move on. There just weren’t classes I could take. It was easier on me because you were supportive. You never pressured me to come back. You kept reaching out for me.”
While we were shut down and unable to practice, Black went to a sand court near her house and worked on her serving, with her parents tossing balls for her to hit. When we started up, she was still in game-ready shape. Better still, she’d continued to work on her passing skills, so that when we played this past spring, she was able to play outside hitter for several matches.
We’d gone from a high-school decoy hitter to a right-side with 366 kills in two seasons to a kid who could hit anywhere along the net and play reasonable defense (not good yet, but not horrible). Oh, did I mention that she was no longer a walk-on? She averaged three kills and a block per set last spring while being selected all-conference and all-region.
The difficulty was finding a four-year college home.
It wasn’t a question of talent; it was a problem of seniors taking advantage of a fifth-year for their grad school to be paid for. A bunch of colleges didn’t answer emails, a dozen said, “No room at the inn.” There was interest from NAIA and NCAA D-III schools, especially since Black was again selected an academic all-American, but her dream was still NCAA Division I.
In May, Eastern Illinois contacted her and said they were interested.
“So one of the schools I reached out to was Eastern Illinois. I had friends at Eastern and so I said ‘what the heck,’ and filled out the recruiting form, figuring the worst that would happen is another ‘so sorry.’ I had no expectations, but the next day, (assistant) coach Manolo (Concepcion) called me, which caught me by surprise. Next, I got a call from Sara (Thomas), the head coach at Eastern, telling me they were really interested in me being part of the program.
“I came for a visit, loved the coaches and team, liked the campus, and it was instantly obvious it was the right place for me. I committed four days later. It’s funny that I spent two years on recruiting and getting nothing, and then in less than a week, I found a school, fell in love, and committed. Yeah weird.”
Before she committed, Manolo followed up with a phone call to me asking about Annika’s attitude and work ethic. His concern was if she was the same athlete from those high- school videos and that ‘it can’t be possible she’s the same athlete in your team’s videos.’ That was the level of improvement she’d achieved. Through hard work and commitment to following her dream, she made it happen.
She’d achieved her goal.
But then the goal changed.
It was no longer about just being on a roster. As soon as she committed, she increased her work and conditioning. Her new goal was to earn playing time and from there, to start.
“You warned us all the time about the work and time commitment required by D-I schools, but everyone just ignored you. Oh my god, I wish I’d paid attention.”
I interrupted, laughed, and said, “I told ya so!”
“The work, there’s just so much more, between early-morning conditioning, film, regular meetings, individuals and then matches and travel,” Black said. “Coming in and learning a new system, new coaches has been a lot of work, too. It’s good though. I love it, but it was still a shock.
This season, she has played in 47 of EIU’s 70 sets and has 41 kills. She is third on the team with 29 blocks and also has 10 digs.
EIU, 7-12 overall, is 0-9 in the OVC and taking its lumps. Black is up and down. For example, last Friday in a five-set loss at Belmont, she had two kills but hit negative. But she also had a match-high eight blocks, one solo.
On Saturday, in a four-set loss at Belmont, she had nine kills in 19 errorless attempts to hit .474 and added an assist, three blocks and a dig.
“While I work on improving my hitting, my role is that I’m a defensive threat,” Black said. “My job is nullifying the other team’s best hitter. I like having a specific task to focus on though my goal is to improve my hitting and push the coaches to see me as an offensive threat as well. I’m not there yet, but I’m working hard, and Manolo and Sara are constantly guiding me to help me with that goal.”
And when this season ends, Black will hit the sand.
“I also get to play beach. I’m excited and nervous for that because that means I’m really going to need to become a better passer,” she said. “I guess I should be thankful now for the passing drills you forced me to do.
“I always love playing sand volleyball, so this was unexpected, and I’m looking forward to it though I don’t think I’ll ever get good enough to play libero.”