Freshmen Breana Edwards, Lexi Johnson and Abigail Westenhofer have already proven to be key pieces in IU volleyball’s turnaround.
They consider themselves to be normal freshmen as they are get more comfortable with campus, dealing with the struggles of classes and learning to live away from home.
“It’s mentally draining,” Johnson said. “On top of adjusting to the new coaching staff and college volleyball, we still are college students, which is really hard.”
But as the first freshman class under Coach Steve Aird has been starting for IU on a regular basis, they have helped the team go from 1-19 in the Big Ten last year to 6-7 now.
“This is going to be a consistent thing with our freshman classes coming in and having an impact on the program,” Edwards said. “It’s fun to be the first class.”
Edwards and Johnson both committed to IU before Aird was hired. When he was brought in, both of them met with him and knew they would stick around to play for the new staff.
Aird followed that up by bringing in Westenhofer after she was on the 2017 Under Armour All-American Second Team.
“Coaching-wise, they care, but as people off the court, they care about us,” Johnson said of the coaching staff. “Something I really like about them is how competitive they are, because all three of us are pretty competitive and want to win just as much as they do.”
The high school skills the trio brought were quickly transferred to collegiate play as the team has dealt with injuries that have forced the freshmen to get more playing time than most newcomers in the conference.
It took time to adjust to the collegiate level, but they said they feel more comfortable now.
“The speed of the game is so much different in college,” Johnson said. “The adjustment was so different, but the team helped us so much with that transition over and make it way smoother and easier for us.”
However, the development process came with and will continue to contain obstacles.
“Coach takes into consideration that we are freshmen, and we make freshmen mistakes,” Westenhofer said. “No one is perfect. He understands that and works with us a lot better than other programs do with their freshmen.”
Westenhofer has split much of her playing time with junior setter Victoria Brisack. Despite a dip in the playing time she would get as the lone setter, she has learned a lot from Brisack and appreciates the guidance.
“Tori is very supportive,” Westenhofer said. “She is very specific in telling me advice or what she knows and sees.”
For Edwards, a lot of advice has come from junior outside hitter Kendall Beerman — who is out for the remainder of the regular season with a torn ACL — and assistant coach Krista Vansant.
Vansant was the 2013 National Player of the Year while playing at University of Washington and was brought in by Aird.
“It’s good to hear from a National Player of the Year that she went through the same stuff,” Edwards said. “It’s always good to be reminded that everyone goes through hard times and bad games.”
Along with the coaches and players they spend nearly every day with, the trio continues to get help from back home.
Whether it be their parents or siblings, all three have had family play volleyball at the collegiate level.
This is evident to Westenhofer when it comes time to receive postgame advice from her mom who played at Western Kentucky.
“It can be a curse at times, but it’s a blessing in disguise,” Westenhofer said. “After games she’s not like normal, clueless moms that are like ‘good job, way to spike.’”
The most successful athlete of that group of parents is Randy Johnson, who was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 2015.
“Since he comes from such a high level of athletics, it’s nice to talk to him after having a bad game,” Lexi Johnson said. “He’s such a supportive dad, so I feel like I can always go to him.”
All of this advice and guidance will now be put to use even more as IU finds itself in postseason contention for the first time in years.
However, with such successful high school careers, the freshmen feel prepared to play in important matches, even if the competition level is significantly higher.
“For me, it’s all I’ve known,” Westenhofer said. “My high school and club was really competitive. It’s obviously different because it’s bigger and better, but I’ve never come from a team that lost a lot, so it’s second nature.”
But at the end of the day, they said they will remember that it is about much more than volleyball — which is something they have taken from Aird.
“Volleyball, obviously, is up there in priorities, but in the bigger picture it’s about you and growing as a person,” Westenhofer said. “If you’re not in the right state of mind, you shouldn’t be doing this on top of it. He cares about you as a person growing.”