Savannah Rennie has never been through a northern winter, so much as ever even visited Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
But when you’ve had a liver transplant, beaten cancer, and rebounded from knee surgery — all by the age of 23 — why not?
And so the 6-foot-2 middle/right side who was at Cal the past five years is going to give the sport she loves another chance, this time as a sixth-year graduate student at Big East power Marquette.
“At this point in my life it’s very intriguing when people want to invest in someone like me and they see my potential and they see that I could fit into their program well,” Rennie said.
But it went both ways.
“Before I even talked to them I watched their Volleymetrics to see what they were like,” she said. “And to see what they were like on the court and see if me as a player would fit in well. I saw a lot of great things.”
What Marquette saw was a player who, when healthy, is a gamer with a big arm.
“You’d love to have a kid for four years,” Marquette coach Ryan Theis said. “But if you can get a good experienced kid who can make you better right away, we’ll take it.”
What Rennie saw was a team that went 28-6 in 2019, finishing second in the Big East, and one that beat Dayton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to Purdue.
“They had a great year and they’re a great program,” Rennie said.
Before going any further, in case you don’t know the incredible, inspirational, mind-blowing story of Savannah Rennie, here it is in a nutshell:
In 2015 she came out of Torrey Pines High School in San Diego as PrepVolleyball.com’s No. 20 senior ace. After getting to Cal that summer, she was diagnosed with congenital hepatic fibrosis with portal hypertension. She needed a new liver and got one on May 17, 2016. We interviewed her soon after and wrote about her then for the first time.
Incredibly, in 2016, she actually played in 12 Cal matches. But in July 2017, Rennie was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin post-transplant lymphoma and missed the entire season battling the cancer.
In 2018, she got on the court again and played in 27 sets.
Finally, last season, Rennie was back. She was the Pac-12 player of the week the first week of the season! We caught up again, this time by video.
It marked an amazing comeback that almost seemed incomprehensible. Rennie was playing well, the Bears were 13-1, and then the bottom fell out again.
In practice the second week of October, Rennie blew out her right knee.
“It’s like comical at this point,” she said dryly.
And that’s the thing about Rennie. She’s hyper-competitive and driven, but has kept her sanity and sense of humor. Which always begs the cliche question: How does she maintain such an incredible attitude and ability to overcome the obstacles and remain so upbeat?
“it’s definitely innate in me to be like this. But it’s part of how I grew up and in the realms of how I grew up. I grew up in baseball.”
Indeed, she played boys baseball until she was 13.
“Being the only girl is tough,” she said. “Verbally dealing with guys talking crap and all that kind of stuff. And the gender issues that I didn’t even realize was a thing, but now I do. So I had to grow up gaining respect from these boys and men. It just made me really tough.
“I’m extremely passionate about what I do and I’m extremely passionate about volleyball. And I don’t see myself not in the realm of volleyball, ever, because it’s something I absolutely love and something I think about every day. It’s this fire that burns inside me.”
Without Rennie, Cal — then up to No. 15 in the ranking — won its next four matches to extend its winning streak to seven. But then the Bears lost three in a row.
Rennie, waiting to have reconstructive surgery in early 2020, strapped on a brace and came back. Kind of. She played sparingly, mostly serving, but in a match against UCLA on November 15, “I tweaked it and my leg went numb. But after that weekend I was OK.”
She laughed at being inserted as a DS against Colorado, a match in which she played four sets and had two kills in as many tries, two aces, and four digs.
And then in a four-set loss at Utah, Rennie had six kills in 12 errorless attacks and three blocks. In a five-set loss to Washington, she had nine kills, hit .294, and had three more blocks and four digs. Finally, in the regular-season finale, a four-set loss to Stanford, Rennie hit negative, had three kills, a block, and a dig.
The Bears were left wanting when the NCAA Tournament field was announced, and just like that, Rennie’s career was seemingly over.
“During the season and when I was doing well, things were going my way and I was really making big strides in my game,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow, I could really achieve my goal and play professionally.’ I was thinking I’m going to graduate in December, it’s an Olympic year so there are going to be spots opening up because girls are going to be coming back to train with their (national) teams and it was going to be a great opportunity for me to go play professionally right when I graduate.
“And that went out the window in October when I tore my ACL.”
“Professional teams are not going to take a chance on a girl with a blown knee, whether I played on it or not.”
But Marquette would.
“It’s a pretty nice pickup,” Theis said.
Rennie purposely waited to have surgery so she could navigate the Cal campus through the end of the fall semester, participate in graduation, and then be a part of some events early in 2020.
Before the surgery she was examined by doctors at Cal and said her knee actually felt great.
“I was doing really well. It didn’t feel like I didn’t even have a torn ACL anymore because I rehabbed it well to get to that point. But it was still obviously torn and loose even with how good it felt.”
She had a plan and playing again wasn’t on the forefront.
Post surgery, “My plan was to get experience coaching, because ultimately what I want to do is be a collegiate coach. Just like my coaches, just like (Cal’s) Jenn (Dorr), just like Amir (Lugo-Rodriguez), just like Sam (Crosson). I would use this time of rehabbing to try to get a grad assistant spot or volunteer and coach and gain experience while I rehab my knee, and if playing becomes a possibility down the road, then great, I’ll take it.”
So first up was driving to Santa Clarita north of Los Angeles and leaving her car and belongings at the home of her boyfriend’s family. Then it was off to be with her mother in Florida for surgery on March 3.
All went well, “And then the pandemic happened and I got stuck out there for a while,” she said with a laugh.
Now she’s back in Southern California waiting to go to Milwaukee.
Rennie said she left Cal in the best of way on both sides.
“I’d been there for five years. I love Cal with all my heart. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me and where I needed to be. But after five years of my life you do kind of want to spread your wings, and I expressed that to Sam and the coaches. And where they were with their recruiting there wasn’t much of an opportunity to stay there, anyway. We left on great terms.”
Theis gave a lot of credit to recruiting coordinator Meghan Keck, a former setter at Auburn and Illinois-Chicago, for keeping up with Rennie once she entered the transfer portal.
Rennie actually put her name in the portal in October, she said, just to give herself options.
“Marquette was emailing me and I really didn’t know what was going on with my knee,” Rennie said. “I really didn’t respond at first, because I didn’t want to lead teams on because of my knee. I didn’t know how I was going to recover and all that.
“I have a good track record of recovering,” she understated. “But it was still an unknown.”
She said she finally responded to Marquette a couple of weeks after the surgery.
“For like two months we just got to know each other like the normal recruiting process. It was like I was 16 again.”
But there was no official visit to be had during this time of coronavirus. Rennie talked to the Marquette coaches and players through Zoom.
“I’ve never even met them in person. It’s kind of like a leap of faith for both of us, but they’re the kind of people I want in my life. They’re very supportive of me and where I want to go and it’s evident that they do believe in me because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have done this.”
Marquette made an announcement June 12 that it added both Rennie and Breyan Ashley from St. Mary’s. Theis recognized that Rennie’s got a big arm and knew she played baseball with the boys as a youngster.
“I don’t know if she’ll be middle or right yet,” Theis said. “She’ll have to come in and compete. We’ll take it slow. She’s not going to be ready on day one coming off the knee.”
Rennie appreciates that and said she won’t be competition ready at the start of the season — if the season starts on time — “and the coaches knew that. I’m a very realistic person and I knew that (playing in August) wasn’t going to be completely feasible, but rehab is going very well and the strength is getting there and all that. I may not be ready the first weekend, for example, but to be ready for like the latter half of the beginning of the season is the goal for us.”
Rennie’s degree from Cal is in media studies and she’ll study corporate communications at Marquette.
“She reached out and said, ‘Marquette’s got some stuff going on that might be a good fit for me,’ between the level of play, the one-year masters program that goes along with her undergraduate degree,” Theis said. “It just made sense that if she was going to give one more year a shot, this would be a good fit for her.
“We’re excited to give Savannah one more chance.”
And Savannah’s excited, too.
“It feels great. I really didn’t have a lot of opportunities coming my way. Knee surgery put a huge damper on everything. It really had me a square zero. I had no idea where this was taking me and there was so much uncertainty. And to have this opportunity come about, it’s just a great fit for me.
“Yeah, it’s a little out of my comfort zone, growing up in San Diego and then moving up to northern California — and other than being in Indianapolis, where I got my transplant — I really haven’t been anywhere else for a long period of time.
“People ask me and I tell them that if I want to grow as a person, getting out of your comfort zone is the best way to do it. And when volleyball’s involved and grad school, how can you turn it down? Anything volleyball-wise, yep, I’m in.”