Finding a Place
Nov. 27, 2008
by Larry Watts
At the rate Ashley Edinger is digging, she's going to find herself in China.
What's that? She's already been to China!
Then how about a path to Omaha, Neb., site of the this year's NCAA women's volleyball championships? That's a lot shorter trip than to China.
"Sorry, too soon to talk about that," says the University of Illinois' outstanding junior libero. "One match at a time, that's all I think about."
At 22-7 and ranked No. 16 in the latest AVCA poll, there is little doubt the Fighting Illini are on the road to NCAA postseason play. And Edinger, a 5-foot-9 junior from Michigan City, Ind., is one of the key reasons why.
Earlier this season, this defensive whiz surpassed the Illinois career dig record and she is now up to 1,545. Her 493 digs this year now stands third on the Illini's single-season ladder, which she also leads with 564 last year and also holds down the fourth spot with 488 as a freshman.
"I really didn't expect to do something like this by my junior year," Edinger says of the career record. "Time flies, and so do the digs I guess."
"She came to us as the top player in her club (Dunes Volleyball) and had tremendous all-around skills," says Illini coach Don Hardin. "Oftentimes coaches make the big mistake of ignoring the best players and let them freelance on their own, so those players wind up becoming undisciplined because all they know how to do is freelance.
"Ashley came in here and learned to play within the system. She was able to adjust to becoming disciplined first and now she has learned to freelance."
However, Edinger had primarily been an outside hitter through nine years of club ball and her prep tenure at Michigan City High, where she was a three-time first team all-state selection. Her transition to libero really took off when she was named to the Junior Olympic team that competed in China the summer before she reported Illinois.
"It was a struggle at first when I came to Champaign," Edinger says. "At our first practice, they lined up all the hitters on one side of the court and the rest of us were on the other side. All we did was shag balls.
"But it's been great playing at this level. I really enjoy playing defense and doing whatever it takes to help the team."
Hardin says Edinger really shines during pickup games before the start of practice.
"They get together for three-on-three matches and she's always the best one out there," he says. "I think when a libero blocked one of my best hitters, they all realized she is at a different level. Her all-around skills are so amazing that I think with the right partner she could be an amazing beach player."
"Maybe if I can find a Kerri Walsh my age, I might give it a try," Edinger jokes.
Athleticism and toughness are trademarks Edinger brings to every match. She played a variety of sports while growing up and really excelled in the annual Gatorade Punt, Pass and Kick contest, where she won three state titles, finished as the national runner-up once and won the national title in 2001.
"I grew up in an athletic family," Edinger says. "My dad (Holt) was involved in a lot of sports, so I guess I get my athleticism from him and my looks and wit from my mother (Julie)."
And did we mention toughness? In her team's next-to-last match last year, she tore the posterior collateral ligament in her left knee. Not only did she finish the match, but she also came back to play the following night in the season finale against Iowa.
"I had to do it for the seniors, it was their last match at home," she says.
But the story doesn't end there. An MRI after the season showed the nagging wrist injury she had been playing with all season was the result of a broken hamate bone. After nearly five months of rehab on her knee, she was back on the court for her team's trip to Italy, Croatia and Slovenia last May.
Did she receive a special award for playing through those injuries?
"Yeah. They gave me a pat on the back and said, 'You're tough,"' she said with a laugh.
"She's one of the best I've seen at giving a consistent effort all the time," Hardin says. "She doesn't let something like a scorer's table prevent her from making a play. She has such an easy nature about her and she makes the incredible digs look so easy.
"And she doesn't just do that in matches; she's like that all the time in practice. When the ball is in the air, she never gives up."
Hardin still marvels about an Edinger dig that haunted Michigan this year on Halloween night.
"It was 22-all in the fifth set (which normally goes to 15) and a Michigan spike came sizzling into the corner of our court," he says. "Then all of a sudden Ashley comes out of nowhere, dives and gets a fist on it, and the ball lands in the opposite corner of Michigan's court."
The Illini won 24-22.
"Ashley relishes the idea of taking on the conference's top hitters," Hardin says. "She could have chosen a smaller school, where she would have been queen of the court, but she wanted to challenge herself at the highest level possible. I think we'll see her playing at an even higher level after college and then go into coaching. She has already been targeted by several foreign coaches."
A pre-med major, where she is studying molecular and cellular biology and has been a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection, Edinger says she is "still weighing all my options. I just can't see myself without volleyball."
Through all this toughness, Edinger does admit to having some superstitions. "I wear my hair the same way every match, with a green headband and a ribbon that is pink, orange and green. I always wear five hairclips and listen the same song ("Be Like That" by 3 Doors Down) on my iPod before the match."
"To be a good libero, you have to be able to perform a multitude of tasks, but you have to be mentally tough especially," Hardin says. "If the libero or setter has a bad match, you lose. The other players can have their ups and downs and you can still win. Everyone on the team depends on the libero, especially in pressure situations.
"Ashley can change the entire atmosphere around a gym. Other members of the team see her effort and they know they can never relax."