Valpo’s Rylee Cookerly continuing stellar career by becoming Missouri Valley’s all-time digs leader

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There isn’t a lot that can be accomplished in a minute. Even Chopin’s venerated “Minute Waltz” can’t be played in a minute.

But Valparaiso volleyball coach Carin Avery said that was all the time she needed to evaluate Rylee Cookerly, now a fifth-year graduate student.

As Avery tells it, she was scouting players at Indiana’s Circle City Volleyball Club when she noticed a diminutive dynamo of a libero. That was Cookerly, and Avery said she knew instantly she had to have this young lady in her program.

“I don’t even know if she necessarily touched two balls in that one minute,” said Avery, in her 20th season as Valpo’s coach. “It was her attitude, her communication, her flow outside of the game. Everything about her court movement I just loved.

“Her personality, her movement, her attitude. She was a great teammate. It took me literally one minute.”

A snap decision? Perhaps. But for someone who values the libero position, Avery knew exactly what to look for.

Not only has Cookerly fulfilled Avery’s expectations, she has established herself as arguably the best libero in the history of the MVC.

The 5-foot-2 product of Brownsburg, Indiana, is the two-time reigning MVC Libero of the Year. During Valpo’s September 24 victory over Southern Illinois, Cookerly became the conference’s all-time leader in digs. (Entering Valpo’s Friday’s match against Loyola, her career total stood at 2,833.)

“Rylee is probably the best teammate I have ever had in my 13 years of playing volleyball,” said fellow fifth-year Peyton McCarthy, Cookerly’s best friend and roommate. “She gets all these awards, and you’d never know it.”

To wit: Cookerly joined McCarthy and her family for breakfast recently, and as McCarthy was scrolling through social media, she saw the announcement that Cookerly had been named MVC Defensive Player of the Week.

“She said, ‘Yeah. I’ve known for a few hours,’ ” McCarthy recalled, still sounding a bit incredulous. “I was like, ‘Um, did you want to say something?’

“She’s the most humble person I know.”

Humble, yet driven. Cookerly’s tenacity and will to succeed can be traced back to her upbringing.

Growing up, she took part in some of the usual activities young girls enjoy: gymnastics and cheerleading. But with two brothers — one older and one younger — there was plenty of competition at home.

Football, baseball, basketball. There always was something sports-related going on at the Cookerly house, and the brothers weren’t about to take it easy on their sister.

Rylee Cookerly

“My dad always says I owe my brothers part of my scholarship because they were the ones who made me as athletic as I am,” Cookerly said. “They definitely didn’t care that I was a girl. They definitely pushed my buttons.”

As far as volleyball, she stumbled into that almost by accident.

When she was in sixth grade, she got a pamphlet in gym class advertising a six-week volleyball clinic. Cookerly said she gave it a try and instantly was hooked.

And the coaches at the clinic caught on to her natural ability almost as quickly as Avery would a few years later. The coach at Brownsburg High School ran the camp, and he encouraged her to join Circle City.

While Cookerly still was in junior high, she was invited to practice with the varsity. The role of libero seemed to instantly suit her.

“I like that I touch the ball a lot at my position,” she said. “I’m definitely a ball hog. I just like being involved in almost every single play. And I guess I picked it up quickly.”

As a freshman in high school, she got her first college look. During a team camp at University of Indianapolis, the coach there encouraged Cookerly to come for an official visit.

To a 14-year-old, being approached by a college was enthralling and enticing. She went for the visit but was told by others to keep an open mind because more college offers would come.

When Valparaiso became an option, Cookerly didn’t need much convincing. She remembers going to watch a match with her father, and she was particularly impressed with the play of middle hitter Taylor Graboski, who wound up being Cookerly’s teammate during her freshman season.

“She was so exciting to watch,” Cookerly said, “and played with so much energy, and I just loved the energy the team had.”

Cookerly said she was ready to commit even before Avery made a formal offer.

Once at Valpo, Cookerly was ready to hit the ground running. First, however, she had a few goals to lay out.

“She sat in my office and said she wanted to break the school record (for digs) and the Valley record. She wanted to get to the top of the NCAA,” Avery said. “She had great big goals for herself early on, and she has worked her butt off every day.

“She doesn’t take a practice off. She doesn’t take a point off in practice. That girl is the epitome of ‘hard work pays off.’ ”

And if there was even a shadow of a doubt Cookerly could achieve those goals, they were erased quickly. As in, during her first match.

She was installed as Valpo’s starting libero from Day 1, and her first match was against Notre Dame. Though the Beacons lost 3-1 to the strong ACC club, Cookerly had 43 digs. She still considers it to be among her best matches — if not the best.

Quite a debut. Not only did it show off her ability, it showed her almost unflappable nature — perhaps a product of being shown no mercy by her brothers.

More importantly, she immediately earned the trust of her teammates.

“I remember getting on the bus after the game, and one of the players, Kayla Currier, said, ‘You had 43 digs,’ ” Cookerly said. “I never even counted stats in high school, so I never even realized that was a lot of digs. I think after that my teammates gave me a lot of elevation.”

Cookerly earned a spot on the MVC All-Freshman team that season as well as AVCA Midwest Region Freshman of the Year, and her game continued to soar from there. But she never allowed herself to get comfortable. She always was putting in extra film work, always nitpicking little things she might have done wrong.

Avery said Cookerly could have 50 digs in a match but would fret over the one she missed. Cookerly, however, said she has eased up on herself a bit. As she has matured in the college game, she realized she doesn’t have to make every play.

“Volleyball is a game of mistakes,” she said, “and as long as I limit myself to as many as my team can afford me to have, then there’s no need for me to be perfect, which actually has helped me to play a lot more free.”

So free, in fact, Avery said sometimes Cookerly’s performance goes almost unnoticed.

“She reads the defenders so well,” Avery said. “She’s not having to throw her body around and make these big moves. She’s already there before the attack. If you’re watching the game, you might not know she had 40 digs because she just does it so effortlessly.”

Though her play might look effortless, there’s no shortage of want-to and grit on Cookerly’s part. And that extends to the classroom.

Cookerly wanted to get a medical degree, but many schools discourage their athletes from pursuing such demanding majors. The rigors of playing a Division I sport and the course load often prove too difficult.

Valpo, however, allowed Cookerly to take on that challenge. Perhaps not surprisingly, she has handled that with the same aplomb as she did the Fighting Irish in her college volleyball debut.

Cookerly graduated in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in nursing — and a 3.98 GPA. Now she is working toward her graduate degree, and, by 2024, she will have earned her doctor of nursing practice degree, which will enable her to be a full-fledged nurse practitioner.

“Enough people struggle to play volleyball and do nursing,” McCarthy said. “But now she’s getting a doctorate and playing volleyball and doing great at both.

“She’ll miss practices, but she’ll come in here early, 7 a.m., and practice by herself. She does night clinicals and still comes to morning practice. I have no idea how she does it.

“She’s always trying to do better for the team, and she never puts herself or anyone else above the team.”

For all Cookerly has accomplished in her decorated career, she lacks one thing: a trip to the NCAA Tournament. She is hoping to check that box in her final season, and she said she believes this team has the tools to do it.

Valpo is 13-3 overall, 4-1 in the Valley, and has a chance to forge into a tie for first when it plays at Loyola (12-5, 5-0) on Friday. Loyola is the last team left with a perfect MVC record.

Entering Friday, Valpo stood at 13-3 and 4-1 in the MVC. A win would put the Beacons in first in the conference, uncharted territory for this group.

“We have always been a pretty defensive-minded program,” Cookerly said. “If you ask other coaches, ‘What’s Valpo volleyball?’ we’re a really good defensive team. But this year we really have been focusing on setting up our offense.

“A lot of people have stepped up on offense, which has been huge for us.”

Valpo remains strong defensively. The Beacons lead the MVC in opponent hitting percentage (.161) and digs (17.06, thanks in large part to Cookerly’s conference-leading 5.06 per set), rank sixth in blocks (2.06) and fourth in fewest aces allowed per set (1.06).

But their players can be found among the conference’s offensive leaders as well. Senior Haley Hart (.322) and McCarthy (.299) rank in the top 10 in hitting percentage. Both have been named MVC Offensive Player of the Week this season.

Valpo has four players averaging at least 2.2 kills per set: junior Bella Ravotto (2.25), Hart (2.38), McCarthy (2.54) and senior Jillie Grant (2.66).

“This is the first time I can say that without a single doubt,” McCarthy said when asked if this was the Valpo team that could break through to the NCAAs. “About a year and a half ago, we worked a lot on the mental aspect of volleyball. We’ve always had great players, but we’ve always struggled. We’ve called ourselves average. We’ve been good, but not great.

“This year we even say before every practice, ‘We refuse to be average.’ ”

It’s almost as if the team has adopted the mantra that has made Cookerly so successful. And as she nears the end of her record-setting career, she said she has allowed herself to take in all she has experienced and all Valpo has given her.

It allowed her to get her nursing degree. It allowed her to make lifelong friends. She met her fiance, Kyle Cartales, a fellow medical student who rushed for 1,140 yards and scored seven touchdowns in his time as a running back for the Valpo football team. They got engaged in August.

If there’s one thing she still lacks, it is respect nationally. For Avery, the dearth of nationwide attention for her libero is a bit of a sore subject.

“The NCAA just put out its top liberos, and every one was a Power 5 (player),” Avery said. “And, listen, I get it. We’re not playing a Power 5 every weekend, so I get the argument. But at the same time, this is a kid who is leading the NCAA in career digs. She’s a two-time (conference) libero of the year.

“When you look at her digs per set against the top-50 schools we play, she blows people out of the water. And I’m so disappointed.”

Cookerly has seen the libero ratings, too. She admits being overlooked outside of her own conference does bother her. But not for long.

Maybe for only a minute.

“I saw a video last week of the top 10 liberos in the nation, and every (player) was Big Ten, Pac-12. And I do feel like I’m as good as those girls.

“But I think I’ve gotten plenty of recognition, though.”

Chuck Curti is a sports writer/copy editor for the Tribune-Review and TribLive.com, Greensburg, Pa.
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