By Jocelyn VerVelde, Sports Information Coordinator
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – "In our lives we will encounter many
challenges, and tomorrow we face one together. How we accept the
challenge and attack the challenge head-on is only about us -- no
one can touch that. If we win or lose this weekend, it will not
make a difference in our lives. But why we play and how we play
will make a difference in our lives forever." – Beth Anders,
a former field hockey sweeper from the United States, who was a
member of the national team that won the bronze medal at the 1984
Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California.
While Beth Anders may have said the above quote in preparation
for a field hockey game, it reflects in a different context on the
career of a college student-athlete. Every college athlete has
experienced challenges that will make a difference in their life
forever, and hopefully prepare them for the challenges following
This weekend, the Tennessee Tech volleyball team honors and
thanks their three seniors, Natalie
Robertson and Ashleigh
Hancock. Each has had to deal with their own challenges, but
have been able to push through and be able to play a sport they
love at the Division I level.
"Having the opportunity to play and represent Tennessee Tech at
the Division I level has not only been a great experience but has
also taught me many valuable lessons preparing me for my life after
college," said Penrod. "Coming from a high school where I was the
first athlete to receive a full scholarship and compete at this
level was an accomplishment in itself. Then I came into the Golden
Eagle program as a freshman starter and was honored with the
all-newcomer team award. I couldn't have been more
"My freshman year was the most successful of all my years playing
here at Tech. However, regardless of the season results over the
past three years, I've gained some great friendships, learned many
life lessons, and with all my injuries and health problems, I've
learned that life does go on. What doesn't kill you makes you
stronger, and most importantly, don't take anything for
While head coach Dave Zelenock has only coached Penrod,
Robertson and Hancock for one season, he has seen them grow and
develop as people and players.
"Natalie was the driving force behind the team from spring all
the way through fall," Zelenock said. "She was our emotional leader
and really was a great leader by example during a real time of
transition. She did anything we asked of her and went hard at
everything. That's just the type of person she is; when she commits
to doing something, she's all in.
"Through all her health concerns, she has tried to stay connected
to the team. It's a little tough because she hasn't been able to
physically even be in the gym to lead us, but what she did was lay
the foundation and show others how to lead and step up, and that's
what we are seeing out of the team."
Right-side hitter Elise Robertson has struggled with her own
injuries, but has been able to push through and have one of her
"I've learned a lot throughout my career," said Robertson. "When
I was injured during my junior year, I learned to see the game from
a coaching perspective. From the bench, you see the way coaches see
the game, and you learn the game differently. My challenges have
taught me to never give up on things. I have a trust in the system,
and faith that things will work out even if something does do
"The player I am this season is the player I have always wanted to
be. I don't know if it's because of the change in the program or if
it is because I am a senior and know this is my last chance, but I
have more confidence in my teammates and more confidence in my own
capabilities. It's nice to have the responsibility and role to
contribute to the team the way I have always wanted to."
Statistically, Robertson is averaging a career-best 2.32 kills
per set, including a career-high 17 kills against Stony Brook on
Sept. 14. She also has added a total of 47 blocks this season,
including a career-high 10 against Kennesaw State on Sept. 13. She
also made her first all-tournament team at the Akron Invitational
"Elise brings us power," Zelenock commented about Robertson's
attacking abilities. "She has one of the heaviest arms I've had on
any team. Early in the year she was our go-to kid when we needed a
point. She had a little slump, but the last few matches she has
re-emerged as a real point scorer in and out of system. She also
has a powerful personality within the team and isn't afraid to say
the unpopular thing, which I love. She's very comfortable in her
own skin and you always know what she thinks, you never have to
"Her mind set as a player is the most improved," he added.
"She was fairly tentative in the spring and now she's going for it
on every swing. As coaches we were telling her how good she is, but
it took a while for her to really believe it, and I think now late
in the year she's really dialed in and knows how good she is."
During the 2013 season, Zelenock needed to call on Hancock to
play a full-time role as a six-rotation setter for the first time
in her collegiate career.
"I realized I had to take a step this season as a senior and
help lead this team," said Hancock. "I had more of an input and
people respected me more. The biggest lesson I've learned is that
you always need to stay positive, even if it means forcing it.
Especially as a setter, I learned that my attitude would affect
players on the court so I had to make a conscious effort to stay
positive. I've loved having the opportunity to improve my skills
and my volleyball mind, and being a part of a team."
Zelenock appreciates the strides Hancock has taken.
"Ashleigh's done great. It's been tough because she's never
blocked in college because she only set from back row," he said.
"It's night-and-day different from the first day I worked with
Ashleigh until now. Her set quality, decisions, blocking, digging
and leadership have all grown tremendously. She's also adding
attacking to her skill set and that's something she didn't do last
"She's in the office a lot watching film and constantly talking to
Coach Joyner about what types of schemes we want to run in certain
rotations, against certain blockers, set distribution, and has
really become a student of the game. The last two weeks she has
been playing her best and that's exactly what you need seniors to
do, be their best late in the year."
While each of these three seniors had to overcome challenges on
and off the court, they learned valuable life lessons that will
help them throughout their lives ahead.
On Saturday, Hancock, Robertson, and Penrod will don purple and
gold one last time as the Golden Eagles host Southeast Missouri at
2 p.m. CT. This will be the final game of the 2013 season.
Admission is free.