Seasoned volleyball veteran settles into leadership role

There are approximately 100 African American and other student-athletes of color this school year at the University of Minnesota. In an occasional series throughout the 2018-19 school and sports year, the MSR will highlight many of these players. This week: Gopher junior outside hitter Alexis Hart

Alexis Hart Photo by Charles Hallman

Alexis Hart amassed about 1,300 kills as a high school volleyball player in Kansas City, Mo. She’s now in the 1,000-kills club as a Minnesota Golden Gopher with more than a season and a half left in her collegiate career.

The six-foot outside hitter collected her thousandth kill Nov. 3 against Michigan State at Maturi Pavilion. Hart is the first Gopher junior to reach this milestone since Daly Santana in 2014 and the third U of M player since 2016. As Santana, now playing professionally, was intimidating with her kills, Hart often uses her athleticism to effectively power the ball over the net.

“It was really great, awesome,” the junior said after the Michigan State match, admitting to this reporter that she was unaware of her career feat after the five-set home win. “I didn’t know and wasn’t expecting it to come this soon. I’m really grateful and blessed.”

Hart’s killing trek to 1,000 and counting began two seasons ago with a 14-kill performance in her first collegiate match. She later earned all-Big Ten freshman honors and had double-digit kills in three NCAA tournament matches.

Last season Hart again made all-conference and finished second on the team in kills. She had 359 kills as a freshman, 446 last year, and over 200 thus far this season with four regular-season matches yet to play and an all-but-expected post-season to come.

When you are in a top-10 program such as Minnesota, resting on one’s laurels might be a poor choice. Once a wide-eyed first-year player, Hart is now a veteran “killer” who used this past off-season to work on improving her already effective game, developing her technical knowledge of the game to keep up and not get left behind.

“I’m in an environment where everyone is very good and performing real well,” Hart told me as she briefly explained how she worked on hitting angles and other volleyball skills that only a player would easily understand.

“I worked this spring on my hitting a lot,” Hart continued. “My freshman and sophomore years I felt like I was very athletic, but being athletic can only take you so far. I felt this year, especially as I am an upperclassman, I was going to show the freshmen and other underclassmen how they can change from good athleticism to actually being athletic and adding skill and talent to that. That was a big thing I changed.”

Alexis Hart in action Photo courtesy of the U of M

As one of three juniors on this year’s squad, Hart said she quickly realized that being a veteran can be ever-changing. “Day by day, it goes back and forth. I feel like a veteran, but maybe my role changes every day depending on the moment.

“Tonight [for example] I was leading by example. Maybe another night I can lead by just talking to someone.”

Hart’s maturity has extended off the court as well. She handles it much better now than in her first two years, she said. “I realize as I’m getting older…I had to manage my time well. Not having a social life, that’s OK. I signed up to be a student-athlete.”

Minnesota (22-2, 16-0 Big Ten) finished its 2018 home schedule last weekend unbeaten (16-0). The Gophers close their regular season with road matches, Maryland and Ohio State this weekend and next weekend at Penn State and Rutgers.

Hart says she and her teammates will miss their “seventh man” — the Maturi Pavilion crowd: “The crowd helps a lot…almost 6,000 fans, and they’re all here to watch us play volleyball,” she said. “It’s a blessing to have people paying money to see us. It’s really cool.”