Work Before Play
Sept. 19, 2007
by Jeff Smith
Work has always come before play with Northwestern volleyball standout Courtnie Paulus.
As a senior captain on the Wildcats' volleyball squad, Paulus knows what is expected of her on campus. She must win, study, win some more and the hit the books again. And when all that is taken care of, then she's free to socialize.
A hard work ethic is something Paulus grew up with. A daughter of dairy farmers from a small Wisconsin community, Paulus learned at a young age that farming came first and social activities were always second. But just as practice is a byproduct of winning on the court, farming is one of making a living.
"My dad was very strict on us when we were younger," said Paulus, who began working on the farm at age 6 with her three sisters. "He had to be strict though, because we were young kids working for our family's living. One mistake could have cost us a lot of money."
Paulus grew up on the border of Belgium and Fredonia, Wis., both in Ozaukee County and a 45-minute drive north of Milwaukee. The community is made up primarily of family-owned dairy farms, and the Paulus Family Farm has been passed down through generations for over 100 years. In Ozaukee County, dairy production is the leading source of agricultural sales and income as the area has nearly 100 dairy farms that produce more than 145,000,000 pounds of milk per year. The Paulus milk is made to produce cheese, which just so happens to be a pretty big deal in the state.
The second-youngest, yet tallest of four daughters to father John and mother Cindy, Paulus and her sisters would begin work at 3 p.m. each day, feeding and milking the calves.
"Since I was the tallest one, I was the milker," said Paulus. "I milked for five years or so, while my other sisters fed the calves and helped clean up."
When she reached high school, Paulus became interested in volleyball. Her team at Ozaukee High had quite the success during her time there, as it claimed two-straight conference championships and a regional title in 2003. Paulus was a first-team all-conference selection and the team's MVP for three seasons. She still holds the career record at the school for kills and blocks. Oh, she also found time to hold the position of class secretary and be involved in National Honor Society. Remember, work before play.
Paulus admits not knowing much about the college volleyball atmosphere because she didn't get involved in the high-level club volleyball scene until her junior season - the peak time for college recruiting. She made the 45-minute drive to Milwaukee for each practice with the Milwaukee Sting and quickly raised the eyebrows of coaches from the Big Ten.
Ultimately, Northwestern's Keylor Chan convinced Paulus to become a Wildcat and she has since blossomed into a standout on the court and the team's lone captain. Just recently, she became the 18th Wildcat, along with current teammate Lindsay Anderson, to reach 1,000 kills in her career. At some point, probably after her career is over, Paulus will look back and be proud of the milestone, but not right now. There is work to be done.
"I am much more concerned about winning right now," she said. "I'd rather have two kills and beat Penn State than reach 1,000 career kills against them. I'm more focused on becoming Big Ten champs."
The Big Ten is annually a force among the collegiate volleyball ranks. Currently, five conference teams are rated in the CSTV/AVCA Coaches Top 25 Poll, led by No. 3 Penn State, No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 10 Michigan. Minnesota is 12th in the recent poll and Ohio State is 23rd.
"Our conference is definitely a difficult one to play in," Paulus said. "It's so competitive, but on any given night, one of our teams can come our and upset another."
Prior to the season, Paulus was named Northwestern's first team captain since Drew Robertson in 2004. She believes that over the past few years, NU as gone without a captain because Chan wanted all the players to step up, take responsibility, and be leaders in their own ways.
Yet Chan is quick to point out, that Paulus' hard work earned her the title of team captain.
"The one thing about Courtnie is that she is always trying to work hard to change, and as a coach, you love to see kids willing to grow and change throughout the course of the year," Chan said. "Statistically, Courtnie has improved each year on the court, but really it was her growth as a young woman that made us designate her as a captain."
In an effort to enhance the team bond, Paulus and Chan took the rest of the Wildcat squad up to her family farm in the preseason during the off day of the team's two-a-day practice regiment. And just like when the team made a similar trip during Paulus' sophomore season, her dad was ready and prepared to show the big-city girls what life is like on the farm.
"He took the girls around the farm and showed them the milking process," Paulus said. "They wanted to milk a cow, but for safety reasons, my dad wouldn't let them."
But in return for the much-appreciated interest the players showed, the Paulus family provided the team with personalized T-shirts from the farm.
"To me, there was a lot of value going up there and seeing how the other half lives," Chan said. "Courtnie is a throwback. You don't hear many kids these days growing up on a farm. Forty to fifty years ago it was the rule, not the exception. She learned the value of hard work at a very early age."
And work lay ahead for the Wildcats, who earned an opening bye to the 2007 conference season, which begins tonight with Illinois hosting Wisconsin. Northwestern will begin its quest for a Big Ten title this weekend with arguably the toughest road trip of the year - away matches at Ohio State on Friday and Penn State on Saturday. Momentum will be on their side, however, with the Wildcats off to a 9-2 start to the 2007 campaign and winners of the last seven.
"We are really excited about this season, because we finally have a lot of seniors on the team," Paulus said. "Earlier in my career, we had several young players on the team, so we are really looking forward to the Big Ten season this year."
Following her volleyball career, Paulus will most likely follow a different path than what her teammates have predicted for her.
"They all tell me that in 10 years I'll be married and living on a farm," she said. "I love home, but farming is an all day, every day business with no holidays off. I have so much respect for my parents, but I just don't think it's for me."
Instead, the psychology major is exploring several options on campus, but feels she wants to become involved in a profession where she can help people.
"I'm not going to be a psychologist, but I do think (my major) is a good background to have when working with people," she said. "Something I have learned during my time at Northwestern is that there are so many opportunities here for the students, not just the athletes."
But those future plans are just that...in the future. Right now there are more important priorities.
There is work to be done.
There are matches to be won.