Making An Impact
Sept. 15, 2010
By Larry Watts
According to one observer, Sabel Moffett is quietly establishing herself as one of the premier volleyball players in the Big Ten. That may be the only time since she arrived at Northwestern University five years ago that quiet and Sabel were used in the same sentence.
From the moment she hits the floor, coordinating the Wildcats' pregame cheer, to the final whistle, the Temecula, Calif. graduate student is a non-stop chatterbox. The 6-foot middle blocker is the Wildcats' self-appointed Energizer Bunny.
"I guess you could say once I'm on the court I am not the quiet type," Moffett says with a laugh. "If I'm quiet on the court, then there's something wrong. Everyone on the team has her role and my personality is I am a social person.
"I am that motivator, but I always put the team first. A huge part of volleyball, or any team sport for that matter, is the energy provided. I have a little fire that comes from within. The team has accepted it and has let me go with it."
The thing is Moffett has been doing it ever since she put on a Northwestern uniform as a redshirt freshman. The older players never once told her to tone down her act.
"That's one of the great things about being part of our team at Northwestern," the 22-year-old says. "You don't have to deal with titles like, freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. You are just part of the Northwestern volleyball family. The seniors aren't sitting on top making the freshmen do all the dirty work. Everyone is equal.
"Even through (Chaparral) high school, several of my teammates had the same characteristics and we fed off each other. Creating cheers is like a ritual and once you do that, it gets everyone fired up and ready to play. I feel like if it's quiet out there, it's not fun."
Moffett changes the pregame cheer every year and there also are individual cheers for the players. Her favorite one is for fellow senior middle blocker Naomi Johnson.
"Na-Train. Choo. Choo," Moffett laughs. "Every time Naomi gets a kill, the entire bench breaks out in unison."
According to Moffett, she knew little, if anything, about Northwestern's volleyball history when she visited Evanston early in her senior year. Since finishing in a three-way tie for second in the Big Ten in 1988, the Wildcats have not finished higher than sixth although head coach Keylor Chan has led them to the NCAA Tournament three times between 2002 and 2005.
"The only thing I knew about Northwestern in sports was I had a good friend (Nazlie Ghazal), who is a year older, here on a tennis scholarship," she says. "When I was looking at colleges, my mom was really academic-based. She always told me I wasn't going to get an athletic scholarship, so I needed to pick up my academics.
"Unlike kids nowadays, I never looked at team records. My focus was on academics, coaching style and team chemistry. I don't know if my opinion would have changed had I looked at Northwestern's record."
Having spent half her life in Mississippi, Moffett did take an official visit to Ole Miss, where her father, Tim, had been a football standout for the Rebels before the wide receiver went on to a professional career with the Los Angeles Raiders and San Diego Chargers.
"Everyone still knew my dad there, so I didn't know if I could do that," she says. "I needed a fresh start, an opportunity to create my own name."
Her final list of schools came down to California-Irvine, Georgia, Washington State and Northwestern.
"It was stay close to home, go south where I had already lived or go to the Midwest," she says. "I figured I had never lived in the Midwest, so why not give it a try. Actually, once I stepped on the Northwestern campus, the family atmosphere was instilled in me from the athletic director through the coach all the way down to the players. It was the most welcoming feeling I had experienced on my visits.
"But they did trick me because they had me visit in the fall, when it is very beautiful around here. They did tell me it would get cold and I had seen snow before, but boy was I in for a rude awakening that first year. The snow I had seen was nothing close to what we get in Chicago and the wind factor is what really kills it."
Moffett, who has already graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in business and is now pursuing her master's in sports administration and marketing, was asked by Chan to take a redshirt during her first season since the Cats had two returning middle blockers as starters.
"I didn't expect it, but I embraced it," she says. "I could have chilled and relaxed, but I decided I was going to come to practice every day ready to prove myself and help the team get better. It was a chance to learn the dynamics of the team, all the plays and the different skill sets of the players."
As the Cats posted their best Big Ten finish (sixth) since her arrival last year, Moffett really made strides in proving her place among the conference elite. Her .349 hitting percentage (sixth in the Big Ten) was tops in school history for a single season. She led the team in kills (398) while cracking the Cats' top 10 list in career block assists and solo blocks. Her 137 block assists and 165 total blocks were each third-best single-season bests, as she became the first Wildcat since 2003 to gain first-team All-Big Ten laurels.
"Personally, it's an honor to be selected All-Big Ten, but it takes six players to show up on Friday and Saturday night to make that happen," she says. "It just sparks something in me to bring others in that same direction. I would love for the entire team to get that kind of recognition, but for that to happen we have to push each other."
Last summer, she was one of 24 players selected to the U.S. National A2 team and helped her team win the bronze medal at the U.S.A. Volleyball National Open Championship.
"I was so blessed to have the opportunity to compete with girls of such high caliber," she says. "It was a great learning experience and fun to see that level of play for two weeks. All of these girls were at the top of their class. We had six middles on the two U.S. teams and everyone brought something different to the table. I was able to learn some different tactics and tendencies, so I've been able to add those to my tool belt."
Moffett has picked right up where she left off this season. A unanimous preseason All-Big Ten selection, she was named the most valuable player for the second time this season as the Wildcats won the Baymont Inn Suites Invitational at Ohio University, which included a five-set stunner of No. 14 Tennessee in the opening match. It marked her second MVP award this year, brining her total to five in the past two seasons, and she has also been selected to the all-tournament team seven times in the last two years.
But the important number in Moffett's mind is the 7-1 start to the Cats' season. Maybe this is the year Northwestern can finally be mentioned among the Big Ten's elite, like three-time national champion Penn State, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue.
"Playing a ranked team like Penn State is extra motivation and we want to prove we belong up there with them," says Moffett, who at some point this season become the 17th Wildcat to log 1,000 career kills. "My mentality has always been to go for the gold and I thought I would be getting an NCAA ring right away, but once I got here I realized we were going to be in for a bit of a struggle. We've had our share of disappointment and seeing two seniors leave the program last year without making the NCAA Tournament in their careers was a hard experience. However, it has also been a huge motivator for me."
And the bigger the stage the more motivated Moffett gets. She may even come up with a new pregame cheer if Northwestern gains a bid this season.
"The Big Ten is amazing and we have a chance to play all these teams at a high level," she says. "I really get energized by the big crowds on our road matches. Being the underdog is a challenge and when you do beat them, it becomes a matter of proving it's no fluke. We're on a journey right now in establishing ourselves as a top competing team."
And there has never been questioning Moffett's ability to play through pain. She tore the labrum in her right shoulder two years ago and severely rolled her ankle against Minnesota last season, but she has never gone to the sidelines.
"The shoulder was still giving me some problems last weekend (at Ohio University) and I continue to get treatment," she says. "I try to be a tough cookie and, as long as I can manage it, I will keep playing."
Moffett isn't ready to call it quits once her collegiate career is over. She would love the opportunity to play overseas next year.
"Anywhere in Europe," she says. "It's new to me and I don't know anything about it, but I'm always open to change and anything new. As long as my body doesn't give out, I figure why not do it while I'm still able."
Eventually, she would like to land a job in sports marketing. This past year she did two quarters of internship work with the Big Ten Network.
"I want to stay within the sports realm because that has been my life," she says.
She might even come back to lend her voice as a volleyball analyst.