Oct. 2, 2006
Allison Ianni has bled green for as long as she can remember. But it wasn't until she put on a Spartan volleyball uniform this year that she had any idea exactly how deep her ties ran with Michigan State.
After three seasons at Pacific, the senior setter's life dream came true. The former Okemos High School star, who grew up less than five miles from Jenison Field House, transferred to Michigan State for her final season and is making waves in the Big Ten.
"It's absolutely amazing, just to get on the court and hear the fight song. Every time I hear the fight song played, I get goose bumps because it's finally my fight song. It gets to be played for me," Ianni said. "It's just the little things like walking into the gym on Sundays or when there's a home football game and you can hear the band playing and smell the tailgates. Just to go in knowing that's your school, that's your home gym, that's pretty cool."
She grew up in a family entrenched in Michigan State athletics, with her father, Greg Ianni, joining the athletic department in 1993. The school's senior associate athletics director, Greg also starred on the Spartans' baseball team in the 1970s. When Allison and her younger brother Anthony were growing up, the family went to all of the volleyball and basketball contests and took trips to the football bowl games for the holidays. If Michigan State went to the Final Four in basketball, the Ianni clan was there too.
"We understood the success and failures of Michigan State because of how much it meant to our family," Allison said. "It seems kind of silly, but after every Michigan State loss, we would cry because we knew what it meant. Not so much because of how great a bowl game would be, but it mean we wouldn't get to go anywhere for Christmas. That's what my dad's job was. If we lost in football or had a bad loss in basketball, he came home and he was upset, so we're upset because of that. Our whole life revolved around it."
She got her first dose of the program as a ball girl for former head coach Chuck Erbe's first teams in the early 1990s. "He put our volleyball program back on the map," Greg said. "She watched those great teams that he had, and that's where it got in her mind, `I want to do this. I want to be like these young women.'"
When she finished her career at Okemos, Allison was honored as the Lansing State Journal's Player of the Year after leading the squad to a 136-33-10 record in her four years.
Still wanting to put herself in the position to be with a program that was going have an opportunity to play for a national championship, Allison went to Pacific, and spent two seasons playing behind All-American setter Hayley Anderson. As a starter in 2005, Allison posted career highs with 134 kills and 1,358 assists (12.02 per game), earning All-Big West honorable mention honors.
But something was still missing.
With Cathy George taking over the Michigan State program in 2005 and an experience setter vacant from the 2006 lineup, Allison finally got her chance to become a Spartan. Since transferring home in January, her ability to spread the ball around the net has put the Spartans off to a soaring start.
The squad opened the non-conference season at 9-1, the best start for Michigan State since 1995 when the team began 27-1 and finished its year in the national semifinals at 34-3. Then a fifth-grader, Allison was a ball girl for that squad, watching and learning from the All-American talents of Dana Cooke and Val Sterk.
The most special part for the Iannis was the start of Big Ten competition. In her conference debut, Ianni and the Spartans fought off several match points against 11th-ranked Purdue before losing 22-20 in a decisive fifth game. Despite the loss, the moment - and the indication of how successful Allison could be in this conference - wasn't lost on the Ianni family.
"Volleyball in this league is like no other in my mind. It's a grind and it's tough volleyball every match," Greg said. "It was just an incredible match, and to see her play at what I consider the highest level that you can play at in intercollegiate volleyball was really special because I always knew she could play here. To see her in that environment and to look at her statistically now, it's obvious that she belongs here."
Allison's efforts have put her at the top of the Big Ten in assists per match, and her average of almost 14 per contest also ranks third in the nation. The senior setter is poised to take over the Spartan single-season record for assists per game, a mark set by Julie Pavlus in 1996.
In the season opener against IPFW, Allison recorded the school's 10th triple-double - 11 kills, 55 assists and 10 digs - a first for the Spartans since 2000.
"She understands this is it. This is her last time walking out on the floor in a uniform, so just as any senior does, she plays with a little different motivation," said Allison's mother Jamie. "After the first match they played, she ran over to me and said, `That was the most fun I've had playing volleyball in such a long time.' It has been a total 180."
Jamie's daughter's move home was no yellow brick road.
When Allison went to Pacific, the staff changed her footwork, her hands and pretty much entire her approach to the game. Adjusting back to the Big Ten's Midwestern style of play wasn't easy, but she forged ahead.
"It was really important for me that I get in early and get in good enough shape so that I could play well and gain some good chemistry with these girls," Allison said. "I had to get to know them on a personal level, know them inside and out, so I know who to set, when to set, how to get them into the game."
Not long after she started working with the Spartan staff, Allison broke her thumb and had to play with a cast the entire spring season, somehow managing to set with four fingers on one hand.
A few months later, she broke her nose at a morning practice during the first week of preseason training. An X-ray prompted her to don a mask for the team's next practice.
"She was not going to be denied the opportunity to play," Jamie said. "Part of that is just because of the athletes she has watched over the years. That's what they do. You get taped up and you go play. You don't take the afternoon off. She's a trooper but she has been around some phenomenal role models."
When the going got tough, Allison thought back to her freshman year of high school, watching the Michigan State men's basketball team take home the national championship at the 2000 Final Four.
A few minutes into the second half, Michigan State held a narrow six-point lead when a collision between Mateen Cleaves and Florida's Teddy Dupay left the Spartan point guard in a heap on the floor and Allison holding her breath with the rest of the Michigan State faithful.
Cleaves, who missed two months earlier in the season with a stress fracture in his right ankle, went back to the locker room for more tape and a brace, but an ankle sprain couldn't keep him from playing in the biggest game of his career. He returned with more than 10 minutes left in the game and propelled the Spartans to a convincing 89-76 victory.
"They were going to have to amputate my leg to keep me out of this one," Cleaves said after the game.
It was a moment the future Spartan volleyball player would never forget, and one among several special Michigan State memories that have inspired her through out her career.
"They got up close to those kids and saw how hard they worked. With the kind of people we've had here, it wasn't just that they were good athletes - it was how hard they worked at what they did," Greg said. "They were around the great coaches. They were around the Nick Sabans, and the Tom Izzos, and they watched and they learned. Their opportunities to be around this level and watch athletes at this level, that's really something that a lot of kids don't get. That was special for them, and I think it fed that hunger to be as good as they could be."
But Allison didn't have to look past her own living room to find two of the greatest role models a young athlete could hope for.
Greg, who graduated from Michigan State in 1975, oversees the school's athletic facilities and works toward the development of long-range plans for improving those sites. Most recently he led the expansion project at Spartan Stadium. During his tenure, he has also spearheaded the renovation of the Spartans' volleyball stadium, Jenison Field House, and the installation of the track and Astroturf field at the Outdoor Track and Field and Field Hockey Complex, which was named the National Track Facility of the Year in 2003. In addition to his facilities duties, Greg has sport management oversight of football, men's and women's golf, women's gymnastics and wrestling, as well as sports medicine and event management.
With dad's office now just around the corner, Allison also has a new perspective on his job.
"When I was little I used to think my dad's job was all fun and games. He got to go to all of the sporting events and all of these functions," she recalls. "Now I realize how much hard work it is and how instrumental his job is and all the other administrators' jobs are in ensuring our success and the success of other sports programs."
For Greg, the most rewarding part of his job is to know he is a part of building the many opportunities available for Allison.
"For my daughter to be a part of the history of women's athletics in the Big Ten Conference, a league that really has been at the forefront of participation for women in intercollegiate athletics, that's really special," Greg said. "I've been a Big Ten guy ever since I was a little kid, and I believe in this conference. Allison's a poster child for all of those athletes over the 25 years who have laid the foundation. She is a recipient of what they have done, and her mother didn't do it in the Big Ten but she was also one of those pioneers."
Before playing the role of Allison's mother and high school coach, Jamie was a three-sport star at Adrian College in the late 1970s and an Academic All-American before going on to coach at Ohio University.
During her playing days, Jamie didn't realize how much her experience would forge the foundation for her daughter's athletic endeavors. She actually played four sports in high school, and thought cutting back to three was a lot.
Now a middle school teacher and high school coach, Jamie speaks to kids about the days of playing in the AIAW and when the women's basketball team played with the men's ball. As a student, she got a chauffeur's license and drove half the team to games in her station wagon.
When she coached at Ohio, her annual recruiting budget was $500.
"And that's laughable because that got me to Columbus and back a couple times I think," said Jamie.
Watching her daughter take on the role of student-athlete is a constant reminder of how much those experiences and struggles were worth.
"She has been around so many positive role models in athletics. You can't put a price tag on that opportunity," Jamie said. "She probably more than anyone appreciates her scholarship and the opportunity to play at a big time conference."
Not to mention the chance to fly to most of her matches.
"We have progressed so far in women's athletics and the opportunities for women today are phenomenal," noted Jamie. "But I do want kids to know that at one point, the opportunities weren't really there. We didn't know any different. We put on a uniform and competed. It was fabulous. No one can ever take that experience away from any athlete."
At Ohio, when Jamie served as head volleyball and an assistant coach for basketball, Allison was in tow for the whole ride. Her play pen was in Jamie's office, and if she cried during practice, the trainer would take care of her.
Despite trying to downplay her own successes as a player and coach, there was nothing Jamie could have done to keep Allison out of the gym. Now she is preparing to take following in her mother's footsteps to the next level. The education major is looking forward to getting her teaching certification in Michigan and becoming a coach.
"I think it's in her blood," Jamie said. "I joke with people, `I thought I taught her better than that.' She's such a bright young woman I think she could do just about anything. I am totally flattered that the experience for has been positive enough that it's what she would want to do."
For the Ianni's, collegiate athletics has become more than a job or a scholarship opportunity. The family affair has made it truly a way of life.
Allison's younger brother Anthony, now a senior at Okemos, recently committed to play basketball at Grand Valley State. For Greg, who has dedicated 29 years of his professional life to intercollegiate athletics, the chance for both of his children to share in the student-athlete experience is priceless.
"I value the experiences we provide for young people; it's something I believe in a great deal. It is so special for my children to have that experience," he said. "For my children to take their God-given gifts and cultivate them to the level that they can play and participate in collegiate athletics, I'm humbled by it a little. You just get caught up in what they do, and it's hard to put words to it. It's one of the great thrills of my life. The opportunity to watch them and to go through this experience in athletics with them is a gift that a lot of people don't get. In many ways, that's my millionaire status."