Setting the tone: Sanchez the 'real deal' in first year at CMU
Kathia Sanchez grew up under the hot sun of Puerto Rico, but her passion for volleyball brought her all the way to Michigan.
The junior is one of three new setters on the Central Michigan University volleyball team this year. She was the MVP of the Chippewa Challenge at McGuirk Arena after tallying 112 assists in three matches this weekend. She has 382 assists this season.
“She did a great job with her net play,” said Head Coach Erik Olson of Sanchez on Saturday. “That’s what she is fantastic at. She is the real deal.”
The two setters from the 2014 team, Kylie Copple and Danielle Thompson, are gone: Thompson graduated and Copple transferred to Portland State. Olson had to replace 1,128 assists they provided last season.
Sanchez joined this fall as a transfer from Iowa Western Community college, where she played her first two years. The team has relied on Sanchez for production in her first year competing in the NCAA.
Sanchez, who has been going by her middle name “Nicole” rather than Kathia since moving to the United States, grew up playing volleyball in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico. Motivated by her parents, she competed on the national team in high school before tearing her ACL.
But playing volleyball in Puerto Rico was not for Sanchez. She decided to pursue a new path in the states.
“Since I was little, I have always wanted to come to the United States and play D1 volleyball and get a good education,” Sanchez said. “That (dream) came true.”
Sanchez was aided by “special agents” who helped her find a school to play for in America. Her landing spot was Iowa Western Community College.
“I loved it,” Sanchez said. “I loved the coaches. I loved my teammates. We were having fun inside and off the court. For me, the most important (thing) is to be a leader on the court. I learned that in my two years at Iowa Western.”
Sanchez led the Reivers to two consecutive NJCAA Tournament appearances and was named the NJCAA Division 1 Player of the Week twice. She is the school’s all-time leader in assists (3,411) and earned All-America honors in 2013 and 2014.
Her success led to a phone call from Olson. Sanchez visited CMU, loved its “family environment” and decided to make the transition from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Mount Pleasant.
Olson said there are many qualities to Sanchez’s game he admires.
“She’s got the idea of who to set, what time and what type of plays,” Olson said. “She’s getting a feel for the rhythm and how to break that rhythm in a match when the flow of the game is going this way or that way. She’s the real deal.”
Sanchez is not only the real deal on the court but also in the classroom. She made Academic-All Region her sophomore year at IWCC. Education is the number one priority for Sanchez and said a goal for her this season is to get straight A’s. She is learning a lot, including English.
“I still have a lot to learn,” Sanchez said of her English skills. “I feel like I’m better than last year. I’m just learning throughout the days.”
Sanchez said the hardest part about transitioning to life in America was adjusting to the style of play.
“The coaches with how they train is different,” Sanchez said. “Everything is different. I’ve learned to manage it. Coaches here focus on the stats. That’s what I like about it.”
Freshman setter Marissa Grant shared playing time with Sanchez early on. Grant has 97 assists this season but did not play in the Chippewa Challenge after Olson gave Sanchez the starting job.
Grant said the setters have no competition and that they try to help each other out as much as possible.
“I think we have a great relationship,” Grant said. “The thing we work on the most is building relationships between positions. For us setters, we’re good teammates to each other. We help each other out in everything that we do.”
Sanchez wants to play professionally in her future, but is focused on helping the Chippewas in the present.
“The team is really outgoing, really fun and really creative,” Sanchez said. “They helped me with my English too, so I liked that.”