One is her passion. One is her talent.
On the volleyball court and at the high jump bar, Katie Isenbarger has lived the best of both worlds at Western Kentucky. And she has been pretty darn good in both.
Saturday, the 6-foot Isenbarger will compete for the second time in the NCAA track and field indoor championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and seek her second All-American honor in the high jump. Last spring, she went into the event seeded 15th and finished fifth. (The top eight earn All-American status.)
“I was very surprised and very pleased,” Isenbarger said about last year’s performance. “I was just happy to be there, to be honest. Being one of the top 16 jumpers in the nation, I was just so excited to just be among all those girls.”
On her way to the 2023 indoor championships, the product of Zionsville, Indiana, set the WKU record at 1.84 meters (roughly 6 feet, ¼ inch) at Bellarmine and won the Conference USA title (1.80). She now holds the top five indoor high jumps in WKU women’s history. She also holds the top four outdoor marks, with the best being 5-11 ½, including breaking a 40-year-old record in the event as a freshman.
In the fall, she wrapped up her outstanding volleyball career — the Hilltoppers won 132 matches and made four NCAA Tournament appearances in her five seasons — by earning her third second-team All-CUSA honor.
She averaged 1.61 kills per set (hitting .363) from her middle position and led the team and ranked second in the conference in blocks (1.23), numbers that are even more impressive considering she was playing alongside All-American middle and two-time C-USA player of the year Lauren Matthews.
Her two-sport stardom is reminiscent of Michigan’s Claire Kieffer-Wright, who, in 2016-17, led the Wolverines volleyball team in blocks and later won the Big Ten high jump title.
“She became a terrific blocker for a lot of the same physical characteristics that made her a really good high jumper,” WKU coach Travis Hudson said. “She’s a really ‘springy’ kid. She’s great laterally. She never gives up on a play. She’s just flying around.”
Hilltoppers track and field director Brent Chumbley marvels at the way Isenbarger has excelled in two Division I sports.
“We’ve had some dual-sport athletes in my coaching career, but, honestly, none that have been at the level Katie is,” said Chumbley, who has been coaching track and field for nearly 25 years. “She is a starter on a fantastic volleyball team and an All-American high jumper, so that doesn’t come around very often.”
Isenbarger said her competitive streak comes naturally. Her father, Phil, was a senior co-captain on Indiana’s 1981 NCAA championship basketball team, famously fronted by Isiah Thomas. Her mother, Jenny, is a marathon runner, and she has two older brothers, Matt and Jack, the latter a professional basketball player in Australia.
She said she tried just about every sport she could while growing up, but by high school she had settled on three: volleyball, basketball and track and field. By her senior year, she had dropped basketball to focus on volleyball and high jump.
But which to do in college?
“I knew I always wanted to do volleyball (in college),” she said. “Even in middle school that was always kind of the plan in the back of my head. While I was in high school, I kind of realized I’m actually better as a high jumper. So volleyball is more of my passion and track and high jump is more just something that I’m gifted with.
“Kind of toward junior, senior year, whenever the recruiting process for volleyball was starting – because I knew that’s what I wanted to do – I was asking colleges would (they) be open to letting me high jump for track.”
Hudson said he was not only open to it. He encouraged it, even going to see her compete in the Indiana high school track and field championships twice.
But he had a friendly caution for Chumbley and his staff. Calling Isenbarger a “very social kid,” he said he believes that is one of the main aspects of volleyball that drew her in. Isenbarger concurred, saying she loves the team aspect of volleyball.
Track and field, meanwhile, can be isolating, with athletes practicing in their little event cocoons rather than as a unit. At WKU, for example, there are only two other women’s high jumpers.
“I had a conversation with the track coaches and said, ‘Look, if you want this to be something that she does for a pretty good stretch of time going forward, my advice to you would be to keep it light, because if it becomes too much of a burden and you make her choose, I think she’ll choose volleyball,’ ” Hudson said. “It just feeds into her personality so much better.
“The freedom to do it in the manner that she has done it has really worked nicely in terms of her handling it all.”
The results don’t leave much room for argument. Isenbarger has handled both with aplomb, and her performance in the high jump might stand out more because of the limited time she has put into it.
Because of the pandemic, she essentially lost two seasons of high jump competition: one when the 2020 outdoor season was canceled and then again in 2021 when volleyball was pushed to the spring.
Even in “normal” years, Isenbarger was getting limited work with the track and field team. Spring volleyball workouts often left her only a day to work on the high jump.
Still, though high jump is an uber-technical event, several of the same mechanics apply to it and volleyball.
“There was a lot of overlay in terms of what she would do in the weight room training wise,” Hudson said. “Volleyball is a jumping sport. She’s really good off one foot in volleyball, and that translates into the mechanics of jumping a little bit over a high jump bar.”
Both coaches agree, however, that more than anything physical, what sets Isenbarger apart from many athletes is her knack for seeming impervious to pressure.
“I think Katie’s biggest advantage is she has a very short memory,” Chumbley said. “If she has a bad jump, it doesn’t affect her at all. If she has a bad practice, it doesn’t affect her at all. She has confidence in the fact that, yes, I can jump, so a bad jump doesn’t matter.
“She just goes out there every day with an amazing attitude. She’s just one of those athletes that coaches dream of getting.”
Added Hudson: “She’s not a kid that feels the weight of anything on her shoulders. She’s a very happy-go-lucky kid, so it never felt overwhelming to her. She never felt unprepared. She’s just a kid who rolls out there and lets it fly and sees what happens.
“With the relative small amount of time she invests in track, you would think that would be an overwhelming pressure for her that she’s not prepared. But she just doesn’t feel those pressures.”
And that has helped her to perform her best at the most critical times.
Hudson said he has shown her the statistics from her regular-season matches and postseason (conference tournament, NCAA) matches. Without exception, he said, her percentages are better in the postseason.
In 2022, for example, she hit .363 during the regular season. She exceeded that in two of three C-USA Tournament matches and in one of the Hilltoppers’ two NCAA Tournament matches.
Exhibit B, of course, is climbing 10 spots from her pre-event seeding to earn a podium finish at the 2022 NCAA indoor high jump.
“It is so interesting,” she said. “Travis has pulled out the stats before and said, ‘Look at your conference tournament stats and look at your NCAA stats compared to your season stats.’ And it’s every single year. I guess it’s just the adrenaline of championship time. I just thrive on it.”
Said Hudson: “I actually went back and looked it up, and throughout her four-year career, her numbers elevated dramatically when tournament time hit. She hit almost 100 points higher career-wise in conference and NCAA Tournament than she did in the regular season, and I think it’s just her ability to handle pressure.
“ … She just elevated and played at a higher level. And I think that’s every coach’s dream: a kid that’s going to elevate their game at the most important times.”
Isenbarger will try to do it again this weekend as she enters the NCAA high jump as the No. 14 seed.
This spring, she has been able to devote more time to the high jump now that she has exhausted her volleyball eligibility. She has outdoor season ahead of her as well, and, if she wanted, she would have an additional year of track and field eligibility after taking a redshirt during the pandemic stretch.
But Isenbarger said she likely is done with competitive athletics after outdoor season. She already has completed her undergrad degree in sport management and event planning and is nearly finished with her master’s in sports administration.
Her dream job, she said, would be working for a professional sports team in some capacity, perhaps in event planning.
“I think I’m ready to dive into the ‘grass’ leagues and just playing (volleyball) for fun,” she said. “I’m, obviously, open to (playing pro) if something would come up. Same with track and field because there’s professional avenues for that as well.
“But what’s most likely to happen is I’ll retire at the end of my track season here, and I’ll be officially done.”
So with all she has done, what is left to accomplish?
Isenbarger isn’t setting any lofty goals, other than to clear 6-1 (1.86 meters), which she said she achieved in high school but hasn’t yet reached in college. Her best has been 1.85, which, converted from metric, is roughly a quarter of an inch short of her magic number.
She said she would like to earn All-American status again, and, given the way she manages to show up in the biggest moments, it probably isn’t wise to bet against her.
Chumbley said he wouldn’t put it past her to win the NCAA title.
“Anything can happen on any day, and that’s the great part about Katie is she doesn’t get nervous. The big stage doesn’t impact her at all,” he said. “So it wouldn’t surprise me if she did (win), but, at the same time, realistically, based on the jumpers in the country, another top-five would be a really good weekend for us.
“She’s consistent. She jumps well all year. And a lot of jumpers, they’ll have that one big jump during the year and then they’ll panic. … She just goes out and executes every time.
“She’s a 4.0 student. She’s working on her master’s degree. Everybody loves to be around Katie. She’s got a constant smile on her face. She’s very active in Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She’s pretty much the gold standard in what you want in a student-athlete.”