Volleyball: Stephanie Holthus hacks away at history


Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

Outside hitter Stephanie Holthus is the Wildcats’ leader on the court and in the record books. The senior star player climbed to the top of Northwestern’s all-time kill list when the team battled Nebraska on Nov. 2.

In high-level volleyball competition, players in the front row have to be ruthless.

And ruthless is the right word. Their duties are twofold: They must stifle the attacking efforts of the rival squad with imposing pairs of arms that come together to build a brick wall barrier, and they must spike down the ball with such fury that their foes have no chance to offer a response.

It’s certainly not a position for the weak, and the more uncompromising one becomes in this endeavor, the more frail the opposing squad appears.

That’s what makes Stephanie Holthus’ demeanor so surprising.

The Northwestern senior has produced one of the most storied volleyball careers in school history. The outside hitter is NU’s all-time leader in kills at 1,713, significantly ahead of Janine Makar’s quarter-century long mark of 1,666. Holthus stands seventh in career digs at 1,281. She was named to the AVCA All-America squad in 2012. In addition, she has received All-Mideast Region and All-Big Ten team distinctions each of the last two seasons, both of which she is likely to attain a third consecutive year once this fall is complete.

In her senior season, her value has not waned. Holthus has seen her stats drop from her junior campaign — 4.27 kills per set, 3.04 digs per set — but she’s still accumulating gaudy numbers. The outside hitter is knocking out 4.11 kills per set and 2.73 digs per set in her final year, and she leads an NU squad that is hanging tough with a 14-12 overall record and a 6-8 mark in the consistently brutal Big Ten.

She is the undisputed star of the program in a sport where focus and aggressiveness are paramount. Yet off the court, Holthus sports a cheery and laid-back temperament.

Consider her tale when she picked up her All-American award from three-time beach volleyball Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings.

“So my name got called. I went up to her and shook her hand,” Holthus recounted. “I was just smiling and staring up at her. And she was like, ‘How are you doing?’ and I was like, ‘I’m good!’ I had this cheesy smile on my face, and I just kept staring at her. It was kind of awkward, but I was awestruck, I guess you could say.”

It doesn’t end there. Although Holthus did not get the opportunity to speak in-depth with the beach volleyball legend, she said, “If I were to walk up to her, I don’t know if I would be able to say anything.”

The flustered state in the face of an idol is something one might expect from the common person, but Holthus is the face of NU volleyball. She is on every promotional poster printed in recent memory. A tally of her time speaking with the media would greatly exceed that of any of her teammates.

Yet Holthus’ personality doesn’t seem to morph at the behest of all this attention. In fact, the outside hitter remains close friends with many players on the squad and is always accessible to the team’s younger talent.

After all, Holthus was once a newcomer to the NU scene. Even as a top recruit, ranked by Volleyball Magazine in its 2010 Fab 50 list, she needed time to acclimate to the all-out war that is Big Ten volleyball.

Early on in the 2013 season, freshman setter Caleigh Ryan said she was struck by the inclusive atmosphere the team offered. Holthus was no doubt a part of that effort. Her coach, Keylor Chan, marveled at all his star player does.

“Steph does so many things,” Chan said. “She’s our starting (left front attacker) and our six rotation outside hitter. She means the world. She’s an anchor. … You have to have anchors, and you need the kids under them to be the next anchors. So, she’s a huge part of the program.”

As Holthus is possibly less than a month shy of the end of her collegiate athletic career and less than a year short of her graduation from NU, it’s pertinent to ponder what the decorated player will do when she steps off the Evanston campus.

In January, before the conclusion to her academic studies at NU, Holthus plans to travel to Puerto Rico to play professional volleyball. Why the Caribbean island? The January start date, as opposed to an August season commencement in other locales, offers convenience. Instead of taking nine months off to train, Holthus can move from the amateurs to the pros with a very minimal time gap.

Holthus plans for her move abroad to be a four-month sojourn, followed by completing her degree at NU. Any further plans for professional volleyball are up in the air.

“I will take it from Puerto Rico,” Holthus said. “I would like to keep playing, yes, but it totally depends on where my life is at that moment as well.”

Holthus is no stranger to travel. At age 21, she has been on three trips with a team to Europe and saw Nicaragua on another such adventure. Her latter experience, during her senior year of high school, seems to have stuck with her the most. She remembers, with great clarity, herself and her teammates bringing stuffed animals to the children of the area and immediately seeing their faces light up at the simple gesture. She was amazed by the children’s appreciation of such a minor luxury.

Clearly, youngsters have a pull on Holthus’ mind.

Her expected degree is in secondary teaching and she hopes to make a career of teaching, specifically history, at the high school level.

Curiously, this conviction is a recent development. Even at age 17, when Holthus met those children in Nicaragua, she had no indication teaching would be her path.

It was her time in the Wildcat Juniors Volleyball Club that gave her a full-throttled push in that direction, instructing kids on the ways of war on her battlefield: the volleyball court.

“The last three years, I was an assistant coach with Wildcat Juniors, and it’s actually what got me very involved in teaching,” Holthus said. “I never thought I would be a teacher, and I never saw myself doing that. Getting a chance to kind of give back to the sport and see other kids grow the way I thought I grew in club has been an amazing experience.”

Holthus also plans to be a volleyball coach some time down the road. She’s unsure what level of the sport she wishes to impart her wisdom.

Whatever the case, she said that every coach she’s ever had — and her volleyball career stretches back to age 11 — believed she would move onto the coaching phase after her playing days.

Her current instructor’s thoughts are no different.

“Steph will be a great coach,” Chan said. “She coaches Wildcats Juniors when she can. She has the right personality, she loves it, and you can see that passion in the way she plays, how much she cares about the game of volleyball. I can’t say enough good things.”

Holthus is still not done at NU, though. Her collegiate career will, at the very least, continue six more matches. Of course, she said she hopes it’s more. The Cats made the NCAA tournament in 2010, Holthus’ freshman year, but have yet to find their way back. The senior hopes not only to get back to the big dance but help NU reach the Sweet 16, a feat the school has yet to accomplish.

Both goals will be an uphill battle, and Holthus knows the sand in the hourglass is running out. Despite constructing a memorable and accolade-filled athletic career, the 21-year-old still pointed to her on-court deficiencies.

“My job is to be the go-to attacker and the player that — no matter what — needs to show up and play the best game,” Holthus said. “A lot of times as players you have ups and downs, and that goes for everyone who’s ever played any sport. But playing at that top level all the time is something that is really important and not exactly something I’ve completely mastered yet.”

If she wishes to accomplish this at NU, her time is short. As if she hasn’t done enough to leave her mark on the court.

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