Sometimes in all the excitement and hoopla that is college athletics, one can lose sight of a student-athlete’s true purpose at an institution of higher learning — education.
That’s definitely not the case at Bowling Green State University. Just ask senior libero and West Chester, Ohio’s Maddie Garda, a player who last year lost her job but this year leads the nation in digs.
During the 2015 season, Garda faced a daunting academic schedule as an early childhood education major.
“I was taking 17 credit hours and was in the classroom all day (student teaching). It had an impact on volleyball,” she says. “I had to work it out with school and volleyball to the point where I was missing practice. Not being with the team full-time was very hard. It was hard being at school all day and then going to practice and leaving early to get to my night classes. It took a toll. I did what I could.”
Garda, a product of the Cincinnati Volleyball Academy, recalls a typical day during the season was being in the preschool she student-taught at from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then went practice for a few hours, followed by a 6-9 p.m. night class.
To make matters even more difficult, Garda lost her starting libero spot to then incoming freshman Kallie Seimet.
But Garda had an ally concerning her plight in the form of fifth-year head coach Danijela Tomic, who places a high value on the education aspect of the college experience.
Tomic’s Falcons program has been cited by the NCAA for having one of the top 10 APR rate percentages in the country. Since she took over, 26 student-athletes have earned some sort of all-MAC academic honor.
“Maddie was our starting libero her sophomore year and then we had a freshman earn the spot,” says Tomic, the former head coach at Florida International, who before than was an assistant at LSU.
“Maddie was stretched in all directions last year. She had a tough academic schedule and started to student-teach. It affected her a lot. She had to manage school and volleyball.”
Garda in turn lauded Tomic for her understanding and caring in dealing with her academic situation.
“Coach has been super-flexible with my situation,” she says. “It has to be hard for a coach to tell a player they can miss practice during the regular season. There wasn’t much that could be done with my major. Those were things I had to do and coach was very flexible with me.”
It’s paid dividends on and off the court.
Garda switched to a double major this year, keeping her early childhood education major and adding an intervention-specialist major on top of it. While it sounds even more daunting, it’s actually improved her academic work load this season. She’s also added a fifth year to her schooling and will student-teach again next year. The intervention-specialist major gives her more options post-college.
“It’s allowed me to take 12 hours. Five years isn’t as bad as it seems,” she says. “I come to all the practices and I have time to come in and watch film. I’m able to do more extra things this year with volleyball. It’s not an easier schedule, but it’s given me a lot more time to focus on volleyball.”
The volleyball part of the equation is an even better story. Garda has come back better than ever this season, not only reclaiming her starting libero position (Seimet comes in as a defensive specialist and is second on the team in digs behind Garda), but posting some simply eye-opening numbers as well.
Through Sunday, Garda was leading all NCAA Division I players in digs per set (6.64) and total digs (485 against only 16 reception errors).
She recently was named the MAC East Division defensive player of the week for an impressive fourth time in 2016 (the second time this season she won the award in back-to-back weeks).
She recently had a combined 41 digs in Bowling Green road wins over Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan. In the Eastern Michigan match, Garda also registered seven service aces, which ranks second in school history and was the most aces in a match for a Falcon player since 1988 (Garda also leads the team in aces). Earlier in the season, she set the school record for digs in a single match with a 40-dig effort against Duke. Garda also was named the tournament MVP at both the Bowling Green and UIC invitationals.
The third time she won the MAC award this season, she averaged a staggering 8.71 digs per set during the award period.
Making those dig totals even more impressive is the fact James Madison’s Taylor Austin ranks second in the country in digs per set at 5.59, more than a full dig behind Garda. Her next closest competition in total digs is from Western Illinois’ Kaili Simmons at 457.
“It’s a combination of things,” says Tomic, who directed her 2012 Bowling Green team to an NCAA first-round tournament victory and followed that up in 2013 with the program’s first triumph over a ranked opponent (BYU).
“There’s the maturity with being a senior. You want to see seniors perform the way she is performing. She has the experience from the last three years, but more importantly it’s all the work she has put in, especially last summer and this spring and summer. She’s reinvented herself. She went above and beyond what was needed. She’s the fastest and strongest she has been from the work she has put in the gym. Her serve-receive and defense were always strengths, but she’s playing at such a high level now.”
Garda was part of Tomic’s first Bowling Green recruiting class.
“I went to see her play and she was like a Tasmanian devil out there. She was all over the place. Maddie is super-quick. Her reactions are super-fast.”
Garda admitted the last year on the court was tough after losing her job to Seimet. “When she came in I definitely knew there was competition for me,” she says. “She earned the spot.”
At the same time, Garda says it lit a spark inside her.
“It did motivate me this year, especially with the having three other seniors on the team that I’ve been with the previous three years. The four of us wanted to have an awesome year and wanted to step up and be leaders on the team.”
Garda pinpoints her interest in being a team leader as contributing to her uptick in play out of the back row.
“A big part of it is the experience, but I’ve also taken on a bigger leadership role, which is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “I want to help other people. I like to connect with my teammates. I know what works and what doesn’t work. I want to be the one who helps them find their way or helps them get back to their game. That’s made me a better teammate and it’s helped me on the court.”
Tomic adds that Garda’s leadership abilities have brought another dimension to the team this season.
“Teammates love playing with her,” Tomic says. “She’s a leader in the back row and does a great job communicating with her teammates. She knows how to individually approach her teammates.”
Tomic thought something must have been amiss in a recent match against Buffalo when Garda had “only” five digs in the first set.
“For us, that’s below her average. I had to talk to her. What are we going to do? Maddie only has five digs,” she says with a laugh. “The next two sets she had 10 and 11 digs. Five digs in a set is a good number for most people. Maddie sets the bar so high.”
Bowling Green’s coach says the team has taken some heat on social media for its blocking strategy this season — something that has to do with Garda’s exceptional play and veteran standing with the team.
“I know some people are asking if we are a good blocking team,” she says. “By design we’ve decided not to block some balls because we have trust in Maddie. She picks up a lot of balls.”
But to Garda, the gaudy dig numbers and high individual rankings aren’t the be-all end-all.
“It doesn’t matter how many digs you have if you are losing or you aren’t playing up to your potential,” she says.
Garda recalls her freshman year when Bowling Green had eight seniors and seven freshmen on the roster. “I knew when I was a senior how I wanted it all to be,” she says.
And to her delight, everything is falling into place for the Falcons, who are 15-6 overall, 5-3 in the MAC. Bowling Green, riding a five-match winning streak, is home Friday for Ball State and then plays host to Toledo on Saturday.
“The team chemistry this year is the best I’ve seen and people have said they’ve never seen team chemistry be so strong,”Garda says. “For someone watching us to say that really says something. I’m so happy and proud with what we’ve done here and I’m so happy to be able to experience it my senior year.”