Abby Schaefer could not say enough about how the top-notch competition she faced growing up helped her be prepared for NCAA Division I volleyball.
The 18-year-old 2022 St. Henry Graduate has done her part to help the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers to a 12-2 start to the season. WKU is ranked 24th in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I poll. Schaefer leads the Hilltoppers with 144 digs.
Schaefer teamed up with the 2021 Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year, outside hitter Taylor Preston and setter Cora Taylor to lead the St. Henry Crusaders to the second state championship in school history last year.
She credited Veteran St. Henry Head Coach Maureen Kaiser for helping the Crusaders prepare for those games and her transition to college.
“The state tournament was tough. But it was great because in the regular season, we always played the best teams,” Schaefer said. “We went to Louisville and played the all-girls teams. That prepared us for matches like that. It was so fun to play in. We had experience with those teams before.”
Schaefer said she’d more than love to add to the success WKU has enjoyed under 28-year veteran head coach Travis Hudson. The Hilltoppers just eclipsed the 700th win in Hudson’s tenure.
“Being a state champion, I never thought that we would get there,” Schaefer said. “But it was a fun season. Our hard work paid off there and kind of pushed us. Going into college, we realized we belong there. It was meant to be.”
Hudson has earned Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year five times and Conference USA Coach of the Year four times. The Hilltoppers have 25 winning seasons in his career including 20 or more wins 23 times, and 30 or more wins in nine campaigns. The Hilltoppers finished 28-2 last year with a third straight NCAA Tournament second round appearance.
Kaiser, the St. Henry coach, said Schaefer does a great job accepting criticism and working on things. Her son Blake graduated from WKU.
“When Abby committed to Western, I couldn’t be more thrilled,” Kaiser said. “I think we both run similar programs in the sense that he builds a family around the team and he welcomes her with open arms, is very patient. She is thriving in that environment for sure. She’s a wonderful athlete to coach.”
“From the day that I walked in the door, these girls have been like sisters to me,” Schaefer said of Western. “We’ve always been like so close. After practice, we’ll all go out and eat dinner together. On the weekends, we’ll hang out. There is no one that you don’t want to be around in this program. Even with the coaches on bus rides, we’ll all sit around and laugh together.”
The Hilltoppers have four coaches on staff and Assistant Coach Craig Bere said each of them works with all the players including Schaefer.
“She actually brings a lot. One of the big things with Abby is she’s just a tough kid,” Bere said. “She brings a very solid mental part of the game. She has really good fire and celebration to her so she brings something to the court every single day that some of the others don’t and that’s very welcomed for sure – just a different personality, competitiveness and the whole thing. That’s very refreshing, especially to get it from a freshman.”
WKU has played several Power Five conference teams. The Hilltoppers beat Tennessee from the Southeastern Conference last week, then Indiana of the Big Ten in the WKU Volleyball Invitational over the weekend. Their two losses have come to second-ranked Louisville and Texas A&M.
“It was crazy. I grew up watching basketball and saw that arena,” Schaefer said of the 3-0 win at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena. “Being there and playing in that gym was really cool.”
Schaefer said digging up balls is not just an individual thing. It starts with blocking and defense.
“It goes back to defense and such with blockers. It really takes all of us,” Schaefer said. “Having good blockers throughout high school and having all the competitive players with me makes my job a lot easier.”
Schaefer is a Nursing major. She’s managed to make time for her academic, athletic and social lives taking advantage of the study tables.
“Time management is a huge thing so study tables have been really beneficial, especially when we are on the road,” Schaefer said. “You miss class here and there, which is really hard. But when you come back, you just go to study hall and have to get your stuff done then make time outside of volleyball to do stuff. But school ultimately comes first, especially with Nursing. That’s one of the hardest degrees to get here. I’ve learned to put that before anything.”
In two seasons, one of Schaefer’s teammates at St. Henry will join her. Junior hitter Aliva Skidmore just verbally committed to the Hilltoppers.
“I’m really excited. I love the coaches and all the girls when I went on my visit,” Skidmore said. “It’s a great campus and exciting to play on a Top 25 program as well.”
The Hilltoppers hit the road to open Conference USA action starting Friday at Alabama-Birmingham then Saturday at Middle Tennessee State. The games start at 8 pm then 3 pm Eastern Standard Time.