Lindsey Ruddins led the nation in kills per set last season.
“That’s pretty crazy to think about,” the UC Santa Barbara outside hitter said with a laugh.
Not for opponents.
“You can design your entire defense to stop her and she can still score,” said Dan Conners, coach of Big West-conference rival UC Davis. “Her serve is a weapon as well as well as being an excellent passer and blocker.
“She is a game changer and when she decides to take over a match, she can bring it.”
And bring it she did last season.
The 6-foot-2 product of Aliso Niguel High School and the Laguna club program averaged an NCAA-best 15.18 attacks and 5.84 kills per set. She ranked 12th overall in total kills with 526 and hit .265.
“What she did last year was so amazing because we didn’t have a lot,” UCSB coach Nicole Lantagne Welch admitted, “so people had to key on her and she still did it. She rises to that kind of challenge and wants the ball in critical moments.”
The team was banged up much of last season en route to an 8-20 overall finish, 7-8 in the Big West. Ruddins herself was coming back from ankle surgery the previous spring.
“It’s unreal how many girls have gotten injured due to random things,” Ruddins said, shaking her head.
There’s every reason to think UCSB will be healthier and better this year. The team lost just one senior — a defensive specialist — who played and get a boost from Utah transfer outside hitter Torre Glasker, incoming freshman right side Tallulah Froley from San Francisco, and outside hitter Giselle Ruddins, who just happens to be Lindsey’s younger sister.
They’ve only gotten to play together once before, when Giselle, then a freshman, got called up to the varsity at Aliso Niguel at the end of Lindsey’s senior year.
“I haven’t seen her play in a while, but I’m excited to get to play with her,” Lindsey said. “I think it will be a really cool experience.”
And this year, their parents, Jerome and Holly, can watch them both.
Lindsey came to UCSB banged up and ended up redshirting her first season.
As a redshirt-freshman in 2016, her oldest sister, Elise, was a senior at USC and it’s a lot easier to drive from Niguel, just north of Dana Point, to USC than the roughly 150 miles to Santa Barbara.
And last year, Giselle was a senior in high school where she was the team MVP.
That’s three sisters at high level Division I, but it’s certainly worth noting that their aunt, Kim Ruddins (Jerome’s sister) was a two-time first-team All-American setter for USC and played in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. And Jerome played at Long Beach State.
So it’s no wonder that Lindsey Ruddins is a big-time player, but no one could have imagined she’d post the kind of numbers she had last season.
Lindsey remembers playing volleyball on grass as a fourth-grader with her dad as her coach. She didn’t start playing club until she was 14 and it didn’t take long for colleges to notice her.
Her mom went to UCSB and suggested she check it out, even before she was recruited by the school.
“The minute I came here I fell in love with the school, the girls were super nice, I was excited to play for Nicole.”
As a senior in high school, Ruddins tore an abdominal muscle in warmups.
“It was really painful and I kept straining it and it never healed properly,” she said.
So as a freshman, Ruddins played in 15 sets through six matches at UCSB and then redshirted.
“That was cool to get a little taste of it and then be able to observe,” said Ruddins, who didn’t turn 18 until November that year. “So it pretty much put me back on track considering my age.”
She also thinks she grew a little that year.
In 2016, Ruddins broke through. She was the Big West freshman of the year after averaging 4.09 kills (fourth in the NCAA among freshman), 2.08 digs and .46 blocks per set. She had 29 aces. Accordingly, both she and Elise were AVCA honorable-mention All-Americans.
“I didn’t expect to have such a big role on the team as a redshirt-freshman,” Lindsey said. “It was a big challenge.”
But her ankle was a problem. Ruddins is a sociology major with an eye on possibly becoming a teacher. Because of the redshirt, she’ll graduate as a junior and hope to play as a graduate student her fifth year. It’s obvious she’s not pre-med, as she laughed when describing her ankle operation about 13 months ago:
“The ligaments were disconnected form my bones. It was a mess. They ended up shaving down my bones and putting in some artificial stuff.”
“It’s been a long process, but the actual recovery time from the surgery to playing was pretty short,” she said, adding that she’s still in physical therapy.
She wasn’t the only one hurt or recovering from injuries.
“We had barely enough players some practices,” Ruddins said.
All of which makes her 2017 season more impressive.
“I had a big role on our team and I wanted it. I would ask the setter to set me. I was confident.”
She laughed again.
“I got a lot of sets per game.”
You think? She averaged 48 swings per match.
“After a big match, when I’d have like 70-plus swings or something like that, I’d play back row only or something like that in the next practice. I had to manage my arm.”
UCSB’s setter is 6-foot senior Annie Hasselmann, a product of San Diego who played
for Coast until she was 16 and then Wave with former UCLA standout Reily Buechler and Cal’s Savannah Rennie.
“When we were getting recruited, we were both talking to the coaches at the same time because we’re the same class,” Hasselmann recalled. “When I found out that she committed the coaches kind of put more pressure to give them a decision. And my parents were like, ‘That Lindsey Ruddins is coming to Santa Barbara.’ And as I was watching her my junior and senior years of club, I was kind of star struck. It wasn’t that she was bigger than most people on the court, she makes it look good.”
“She’s really athletic,” teammate Charlie Robinson chimed in.
Setting for Ruddins “is really fun,” Hasselmann said. “It’s fun to have a hitter that makes you look good.
“I’m definitely not perfect all the time, but she just handles things and puts them away.”
“Yeah, her numbers are insane. I’m not an All-American setter, so that says something about her.”
Robinson is a 6-foot junior middle from Pacific Palisades.
“Lindsey hits over the block and can hit into the middle of the court and go sharp angle, because she has that height and that reach,” Robinson said.
“Playing with Lindsey, it’s not like you feel more relaxed on the court, but you know you can trust your other teammates and you know she’s going to put the ball away,” Robinson said. “Which is awesome.”
Ruddins was also second on the team last season in digs with 255. She was a VolleyballMag.com and AVCA honorable-mention All-American.
“This spring she’s taken on a bigger leadership role and we’ve seen a lot of growth there and she’s working really hard, not only on her game but how to help her team,” Lantagne Welch said.
Her teammates and coach made a point of mentioning how unassuming Ruddins is about her success.
“Not only is she an amazing volleyball player, but she’s incredible humble and is a great quality for a volleyball player, because I hate when girls are super cocky and they might be super good, but they also might be full of themselves,” Hasselmann said. “Lindsey is the exact opposite, which is super nice to see.”
Lantagne Welch agreed.
“In a lot of ways Lindsey probably doesn’t know how good she is because she doesn’t have the ego that some players that have her kind of numbers would have. And it’s a refreshing thing.”
Ruddins had big numbers all season long, which started early when she had 38 kills against Florida State in the second match of the season. She had 32 in November against UC Irvine and was the Big West player of the week three times.
“I’m confident when I play,” she admitted.
Obviously it rubs off.
“She brings the level of play up on the court,” Hasselmann said. “That’s the fact of it.”
Accordingly, eyes will be on her in 2018, but Ruddins and her team hope she gets the ball less, which will likely mean lower numbers.
There is and there isn’t. People can say you did this last year and if you don’t do it again you’ve gone downhill,” Ruddins said.
“But at the same time, I think our whole team has grown so much I think the pressure is almost lifted off of me. I think our team has grown and we’ll be more balanced and it will be more fun.”