Crossover athlete

Sam Brawley made the transition from cross country to volleyball. (Neil Blake/Staff Photographer)

After walking on the cross country team in 2008, Sam Brawley found she no longer had the heart to keep up in a sport she had success in through high school.

Despite heading to the state finals in cross country multiple times, Brawley saw her times fall after getting to college. She was forced to take a redshirt and sit out the season.

Once the season was finished, Brawley decided she would not be returning to the team. But rather than set aside her competitive spirit, she decided to take on a new challenge and try out for another sport she loved: volleyball.

“I have always loved volleyball more,” Brawley said. “Even in high school, I would want to leave cross country practice to go to volleyball practice, but never the other way around.”

Brawley lettered in volleyball and cross country four times each. Early in her career, she knew she was better at cross country, but her heart was in volleyball.

“Since I was a sophomore in high school, I knew I wanted to play volleyball in college,” Brawley said. “I had some coaches look at me when I was in high school, and they said I had potential, but I needed some time to perfect my game.”

Brawley tried out for the volleyball team earlier this year. After seeing her play and looking at her performance in high school, coach Erik Olson gave her a spot on the roster.

“We ask a lot of our walk-ons,” Olson said. “But she has worked hard and deserves the spot on the roster.”

Brawley had never been to a volleyball match before trying out for the team, despite her mother’s objections. Brawley said her mother pushed her to go the matches and meet with the coach, but scheduling conflicts with cross country made it impossible.

“My mom was really excited when I told her I had made the team,” Brawley said. “When you go to a cross country match, you sit in one spot and wait for them to go by. So she is going to enjoy the volleyball games much more.”

Change of pace

Shortly after joining the team, Brawley found out her training as a cross country runner hurt her conditioning for volleyball.

Cross country requires long distances and stamina. Volleyball requires short bursts of speed and agility.

“Running long distances slows down your reaction time, and I need that agility to play volleyball,” Brawley said. “Coach told me, ‘If you have to run, keep it under a mile.’”

Brawley also experienced a change of team mentality. While cross country is a sport of personal bests, volleyball is a team sport with one goal.

“In cross country practice, you want to work harder so you can run faster and make a goal,” Brawley said. “But in volleyball practice, you work harder for your team so you are not letting them down.”

Brawley said she was nervous about the volleyball team’s reaction to her joining after her freshman year. She was afraid the team might see her as someone who just wants her name on the roster.

“I think the girls on the team quickly found out that I wasn’t on the team just to be on the team,” she said. “They saw me trying my hardest, and they started helping me improve my game.”

Learning the Position

As a defensive specialist, Brawley has the opportunity to train with one of the most consistent liberos in CMU history, senior Alexis Lonneman.

“She has helped me with my technique,” Brawley said. “I rely on her if I have a question. She never gets frustrated, and she just helps me out a lot. Since making the team, I am going for everything and reaching balls I would have never gotten before.”

Olson said she provides valuable depth to her position.

“She has made some huge improvements over the summer,” Olson said. “She is an asset to have. If one of our defensive specialists are struggling, she can come off the bench and help us out.”

Brawley earned all-state honors in cross country during and honorable mention all-conference honors in volleyball during her time at Niles High School.