Junior setter leads the charge for GVSU volleyball
She huddles with her team and discusses strategy after needing only a point to win nearing the end of a critical set.
Once the huddle breaks, she reads the defense on the other side of the net and does not like what she sees, so she calls an audible for a new play.
The ball is served, then returned and her teammate notches a valuable dig.
Then the ball comes toward her. She again reads the defense, scans her front line and formulates a plan of attack all while the ball soars at her.
She sets it up and her teammate spikes the soft sphere into the hardwood on the opposite side.
They’ve won the game.
This is Katie Olson’s job, and she does it better than anybody else on the Grand Valley State volleyball team.
Olson, from Peru, Illinois, is an athlete by blood. Not only did both of her parents play college basketball, but her aunt, Kathy George, is the head coach of the Michigan State volleyball team.
She played both sports growing up and enjoyed both. Eventually, she had a choice to make: would she play volleyball or basketball in college?
Much to the joy of Grand Valley head coach Deanne Scanlon, she picked volleyball.
Scanlon, who is friends with Olson’s aunt after having coached with her at Western Michigan, contacted her and asked if Olson, who was drawing Division I interest, would be interested in playing for a competitive Division II school.
Fortunately, she was.
Her competitive nature that allowed her to select a smaller school in a lower bracket of competition as opposed to a bigger stage is what drives her to improve consistently and helps her and the Lakers win.
“I’m a huge competitive person and I absolutely hate, hate losing. For us to go out and come out as strong as we can, it’s a great feeling of winning,” Olson said.
She was not put in a starting role immediately to begin her career as a Laker, though. In fact, in her freshman year, she played only a minor role.
Going into her sophomore year, there was a battle for playing time at the setter position after the Lakers graduated five seniors.
“It was definitely a very competitive role for me. Taylor Stewart and I kept going back and forth with playing time, each pushing each other,” Olson said. “It wasn’t like we were fighting the other person, just for the position. We’d help each other out. I think us pushing each other in practice is what really helped me get to the position I’m at right now.”
Olson eventually won the job and ran with it.
Now a junior and team captain, she is taking strides to become even better not just for herself, but for her teammates too.
“(I want) to make all of my hitters better. I need to be able to take my pass and put it up there for them. That’s kind of my goal, to make people on my team better,” Olson said.
One of her greatest weapons, reigning GLIAC Freshman of the Year Staci Brower, is feeling the effects of having a standout setter who can set her up for striking blows on the enemy team, and she trusts that Olson will give her the right set. They also hold enough trust between each other that they can sit down and work out what they can do better to improve overall team performance.
“We have been doing a lot in practice and really giving feedback to each other, like if I want it higher or if I want it tight to the net. It’s an open communication where she can give me feedback and I’m willing to give her that feedback also,” Brower said.
This relationship is not new, nor is it finished developing. Both girls feel as though they will continue to knit a tighter bond both on and off the court, leading to far greater than what the duo has already accomplished.
“They’ve had to spend a lot of time off the court talking through things, what each one of them is comfortable with, Katie bringing a confidence to Staci as a player, what Staci needs to hear from Katie, what Katie needs to hear from Staci, what they see on the court,” Scanlon said.
The relationship aspect between setter and teammates is a concept Scanlon placed emphasis on. She described the setter as the quarterback of the team and that they are used to “barking out orders,” which causes a close and understanding relationship with her surrounding allies to be immensely important.
“She’s taken some huge steps in doing that off the court, spending time with players and getting to know them, getting outside her comfort zone. We’ve had meetings about how she needs to talk to certain players certain ways, and I think it’s made a huge growth in her as a leader but she’s helped other players. She’s a setter whisper, you might call her,” Scanlon said.
The newfound leadership that Olson carries for this squad is critical to their success because of how young the team is. With a total of 12 seniors graduating over the past two years, there is plenty of fresh blood in the program, and Olson is the veteran presence that keeps them together.
Her favorability does not end with her skill in the sport or strong veteran presence, either.
“She’s a very fun and energetic girl. She’s very fun to have on the court and it’s so fun to have her as a setter,” Brower said. With what a grind the season can be, it is never a bad thing to have somebody to lighten the mood every once in a while. It only gets better when it’s your captain and inherent leader who does it for them.”
But don’t let the fun vibe and soft smile fool you. Olson is a competitor and will not quit until she emerges victorious.