By LINDA BOUVET, LSSU Sports Information Director
Brittany Newberry’s volleyball career at Lake Superior State is proof that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in college sports.
Newberry was recruited as a 5-foot-6 outside hitter, but spent her first three seasons at LSSU at libero, meaning she always played two rotations in the back row for LSSU’s hitters and wasn’t allowed to attack. During that time, she led the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in average digs per set. Despite consistently posting the best stats in the GLIAC, she never garnered more than a post-season honorable mention.
Heading into her senior year, Newberry was on track to shatter Kristy James’ career digs record of 1,840. But last February’s shoulder surgery and coaching change put the record in jeopardy. So did an injury to LSSU’s top-returning hitter, Emily Snyder. New coach Ben Kaszeta needed another attacker, and Newberry possessed the team’s best vertical leap.
“All through high school I was our main outside hitter,” said Newberry, whose prep volleyball coach was her mom, Jeanne, and together the Iron Mountain Mountaineers amassed a 56-0 record. “I wasn’t expecting to play defense I guess. But when I came, I happened to be the person they needed to play there. I always wanted to hit…I was churping in Coach’s ear as soon as he got here. Then I got the same opportunity to hit in practice as everyone else.”
With Snyder sidelined with a foot injury, Newberry played outside hitter during the Lakers’ season opening tournament at Ferris State and totaled a career-high 19 kills during a five-set loss to Drury. That tournament was a confidence builder, and Newberry went on to provide an impressive one-two punch for LSSU. She caught teams off-guard with her potent back-row attack and led the Lakers in kills. She also led the team in digs.
Finally, all-conference honors were possible, but could she break the digs record while playing outside hitter?
Once Snyder returned to the lineup, Newberry split time at outside hitter and libero, depending on the Lakers’ needs (NCAA rules prohibit liberos from leaving their feet while attacking). Newberry slowly closed in on the digs record, and Kaszeta had her play libero during the Lakers’ season-ending homestand to give her a better chance of reaching it.
“I love the back row,” said Newberry, whose lifetime of punishing dives has taken a toll on her body. “If I could be libero and back-row attack, I would be set and love it.”
Newberry finally broke the career digs record on Nov. 5, midway through the Lakers’ impressive battle against 12th-ranked Ferris State. She finished her career with 1,866 digs. Her single-season dig totals of 391 (2008), 528 (2009) and 564 (2010) rank 10th, fifth and second, respectively on LSSU’s all-time list. She has five single-match performances that also rank on the Lakers’ top-10 list.
“I think I was the only person on the floor who knew she was going for the record,” fellow senior Jeanna Radzinski said. “She was not going to make a big deal out of it. Coach called a timeout and started cheering. I shook her, saying ‘Come on, you got it.’ But she really wanted to win that game. That was the end of it.”
During her sophomore season, Newberry ranked sixth nationally in Division II in digs per set, and last season she was ranked 12th. This season, she was named to the All-GLIAC Second Team.
“Being from a small university with the record we’ve had, I’m glad things didn’t go unrecognized,” Newberry said. “Looking back, I did whatever I could to make the team better. I played my heart out every single game. But in my mind, I can always play better. There is always something I can change. If I have 50 digs, I think there are four more I could have had. But I still played 100 percent.”
“Brittany was a pleasure to coach this year,” Kaszeta said. “Her aggressiveness and overall defensive attitude were amazing. A little kid that packs a big punch! She will be greatly missed next year. She was one person on our team other people had to game plan against. After the Northern Michigan match, their coach even said their whole game plan was to keep balls away from her.”
“I felt like I knew what we needed to win, and I adapted to Coach Ben,” said Radzinski, a middle hitter who earned All-GLIAC Honorable Mention after finishing her career with 415 career kills. “I grew up downstate with coaches like him. It was easy for me to adapt, but a little bit harder for Britt. Once she bought in, she was unstoppable. She wants to get things done, and takes on way too much responsibility herself. If we lose, she thinks, ‘what could I have done?’ Coach told her that there’s only so much you can do. That helped us to do as much as we could, where we could.”
LSSU’s five seniors, including Lindsay McLeod, Janelle Balkwill and Jessica Murawski, remained tight as several classmates came and went during the past five Laker seasons. The Class of 2012 originally included nine players.
“We’ve always been close,” Radzinski said. “To be announced with them during our last game meant the world to me. Those are people you never stop being friends with.”
“We stayed true to who we were,” Newberry said. “We never had the mentality of ‘this is just Lake State.’ To us, this is just the beginning. We’re the team that made the change. The teams after us have to step in our shoes and follow.”
Newberry will earn her exercise science degree this spring and spend two more years at LSSU working on a degree in athletic training. She is one of 10 Division II athletes chosen to represent the United States at an international tournament in Italy May 22-June 4.
“I know I’ll continue to play beach volleyball, and I still have all of my friends from this team,” Newberry said. “It’s not like I’m never going to see them again. But it will be hard when I’m watching them. I’ll want to yell, or fix it, or do things. But I did what I wanted to do.”