8B - The Michigan Daily - SportsMonday - October 25, 2004
Sarah Allen spent her first year
at Michigan just trying to fit
in. Now she's someone the
volleyball team can't do without
By Stephanie Wright * Daily Sports Writer
A tthe beginning of this season, Michigan volleyball coach
Mark Rosen announced his team's near-unanimous deci-
sion for its captains. Fifth-year senior Sarah Allen listened,
not expecting to be one of the two names called.
Sitting next to Allen, fifth-year senior Lisa Gamalski - one of
the team's most vocal leaders - seemed like an obvious choice.
So did the team's other senior, Jennifer Gandolph - Michigan's
all-time leader in kills, digs and attempts.
But to Allen's surprise, it was her name along with Gamalski's that
Rosen called. And looking at Allen's development in the Michigan pro-
gram over the past five seasons, no one deserved the honor more.
A walk-on who earned her way to a scholarship, Allen epito-
mizes hard work and determination, with "the best go-get-it work
ethic" on the team, according to Gamalski. That work ethic has
enabled Allen to become one of Michigan's most consistent and
Rosen still remembers the exact place on Penn State's Rec Hall
floor where he was standing when Allen gave him a videotape
of her playing volleyball. The summer before her senior year of
high school, Allen had attended the volleyball camp Rosen and
his wife, Michigan associate head coach Leisa Rosen, conducted
Rosen noticed Allen immediately.
"She was just a neat kid," Rosen said. "I just liked her per-
sonality. And right off the bat,.you could see she was ripped -
physically, a real strong kid with a lot of definition - and a good
Just before Michigan traveled to Penn State for a match in 1999,
Allen called Rosen and asked if she could bring him the tape. Rec-
ognizing her as "that kid" from camp, Rosen told Allen that her
attitude would be a great fit for his program. But Allen - who had
been a setter and always played on the right side - would have to
walk on and probably train as a back-row player.
Even though there were no guarantees, Allen just wanted to
play and came to Michigan focused on getting better. But it wasn't
easy - she had passed "maybe fifty" balls in high school and had
to quickly learn how to pass at the Division I level.
"When she came in, we really didn't
know what her role was going to be,"
Rosen said. "But she developed as a
the team. During the 2000 season, the focus was on the core group
of players - Allen practiced, but didn't receive the one-on-one
attention she needed. In the spring, the coaches divided the team
into small groups and gave every player lots of repetitions. That
instruction - and being able to play in the following preseason
- was a "huge turning point" for Allen.
"I don't think I even thought I could make an impact before
then," Allen said.
In 2002, the NCAA adopted the libero position based on inter-
national rules. The libero is primarily a defensive player, who digs
the ball and then directs the front line as to where the ball should
go. Like an offensive lineman in football or a catcher in baseball,
the libero makes sure everything runs smoothly, but tends to go
unnoticed unless she makes a mistake.
Because of her position in Michigan's back row, Allen has been
referred to as a garbage collector of sorts - when the opposing
team hits the ball over the net, it is her job to pick it up and throw
it away - leading to comparisons between her and a certain
member of Sesame Street.
"(Sophomore) Erin Cobler's mom used to always tell me that
I pick up all the garbage off the floor," Allen said. "So for my
birthday, she got me a watch that has Oscar the Grouch and
a garbage can on it."
In her first two years at Michigan, Allen had been a defen-
sive specialist, and her passing and ball control skills were con-
tinuing to improve. Because the libero is more than a defensive
specialist, it seemed the perfect fit for Allen. But in order to earn
the role of libero, Allen had to be a more consistent passer and a
more stable all-around player.
"I had to be better at all the things I was learning new when I
came in," Allen said. "But I just wanted to play, so I was doing
whatever I could to play."
Allen continued to focus on passing and defense throughout her second
year, working to change her "raw" style into a more refined technique.
"There wasn't anybody in our gym that worked harder than her
during the season and then during the offseason as well," Leisa
said. "Sarah worked hard every single day, and grabbed hold of
the libero spot to be her identity (as a player)."
But Allen's improvement wasn't constantly an uphill curve. In her
sophomore year, freshman Carrie Ritchie came onto the team and
A former college athlete, he has been able to give Allen advice
on how to be a leader. Though he doesn't live in the area, he has
seen her play, and he helps her with situations on the court -
especially how to handle a bad match.
In a loss against Illinois two weeks ago, Allen felt like her
mistakes late in the match cost Michigan the win. She talked
to her boyfriend right after the match, who told her that what
matters most to her coaches and teammates - and what will
make her a better leader - is the way she responds.
"He told me that, as long as I go out there and do my best
every time, there's nothing else I can do," Allen said. "I just
think he's been an incredible support for me."
Allen is not a cheerleader - she's too laid back to give 4
pep talks or get on her teammates all the time. She's the r
last one to arrive at practice - walking in min-
utes before it starts - but her coaches and team-
mates always know she'll be there. She stays
calm on the court, even when a match isn't
But every once in awhile, Allen's more gre-
garious side comes out, especially when
"If thlere's anything I can say to get
us fied up o a garme, it's nothing
like Sarah dancing .If she
quits herdayjobaa volleyball
player,she sould gobe aback-
up danicer fr Jant akson.
-Sioi La amaiki
took Allen's playing time as defensive
specialist. When the libero position
came in the next year, Ritchie started
over Allen, who began to feel like "a
waste of space."
"It's frustrating when you know
you're good enough to play, but
there's someone else better," Allen
said. "You work really, really hard
everyday, but you're not getting the
After Michigan beat Ohio State
at home in October of 2002, Allen
remembers not being able to get
excited. She hadn't played and didn't
feel like she had been part of the
win. Thep at practice the next week,
there's a stereo in
the locker room.
"If there's anything I
can say to get us fired up for
a game, it's nothing like
Sarah dancing," Gamalski
said. "She's a very good
dancer. If she quits her day
job as a volleyball player,
she should go be a back-
up dancer for Janet
Jackson or someone
like that. She puts
on a good pregame
Allen can now
be herself and
know that she
is accepted by
- a reflection
of the team's
but also of
a detailed list of
what everyone is
supposed to bring,
and makes sure no
one forgets any of it.
According to Rosen,
"that kid" who came
to Michigan with so
much to learn about
her sport has grown
into a "really good
teacher." Now, she
works at the Rosens'
volleyball clinics and
camp - the same camp
that Allen herself once
attended. Allen plans
to go into medicine,
but Rosen believes she
would make a good
coach on the side.
"I hope that she has
the chance to coach high
school or junior high or
club," Rosen said. "Peo-
ple would really benefit
from working with her."
It sounds like some
passer and as a defensive player,
and I've had very few players in
my career that learn those skills.
Those are usually skills that they
come in with. She's really learned
(to be) a ball control player, which
Unlike most Michigan vol-
leyball players, Allen was not a
Volleyball Magazine "Fab Fifty"
selection or a top-100 recruit.
The Mechanicsburg, Penn.
native had always been active
- a gymnast and dancer for 10
years - but she didn't start play-
ing volleyball until high school.
Allen wasn't as polished or
experienced as everyone
else on the team, and red-
shirted her freshman year at
Michigan. As a result, Allen
was a target and often left practice feeling discouraged.
"The personality of the team then was very different than it is
now," Allen said. "I don't like to say it this way, but if you weren't
very good, (some of the players) didn't really accept you."
But there were two seniors - Alija Pittenger and Shawna
Olson - who did accept Allen and took her under their collective
wine helnine her let throuah nractice and inviting her to hang out
Rosen pulled her aside and stressed just how much she was needed
on the team. A few games later, the starting libero was injured and
Allen had to replace her.
She's played in every game since.
Freshman Katie Bruzdzinski remembers being nervous the first
week of practice this year. One day during preseason, she was sit-
ting in a room with Allen and freshman Mara Martin, and Allen
was telling them what her first year was like and what they could
expect throughout the season.
"I remember her saying, 'Don't worry about it, you're going to
be fine,"' Bruzdzinski said. "She relaxed us a lot and just really
Allen also helped Gandolph make the transition to college.
When Gandolph stayed with Allen on her official visit, Allen
made sure she felt fully welcome on the team. In addition to show-
ing Gandolph what the Michigan volleyball program is like, Allen
made an extra effort to get to know her better.
"I remember every time I was with Sarah, we were at a different
restaurant, getting something different to eat," Gandolph said. "I was
always with her, and I feel like that was all we did my whole visit."
Allen has been able to draw on her negative experiences her
first year to ensure that everyone feels accepted on the team. In
this way, she has always been a leader. But when Allen was given
the starting libero position prior to her junior season, she found
herself having to take on a more substantial role on the team.
Allen has received valuable assistance from her boyfriend -