It is a long road, literally and figuratively, to become a division one college athlete. Even farther when they come from Alaska.
“It is exciting,” Northern Illinois (Chicago, Ill.) junior Amber Walker said as teammates celebrated around her Saturday afternoon. “One of our goals was to be division champs, and Mid-American Conference champs. It was a crazy game but now we get to hang some banners in the gym.”
Walker, born in Juneau, had just helped her NIU Huskies’ teammates defeat Bowling Green University (Ohio) to secure their league title.
Next weekend they are the favorite in the MAC Tournament, the winner of which gets an automatic berth to the NCAA Division I Tournament.
Oh yeah, NIU is ranked 19th in the nation.
“I freaked out when I saw that,” Walker said. “It is pretty incredible. If we win we are in, if we don’t we watch selection Sunday on television to see if we are picked. I think we have a pretty good chance no matter what.”
NIU (25-5, 14-2 MAC) won its 13th match in a row with the victory over Bowling Green, the longest in school history since 2001 when the Huskies netted 18. They also have the most road wins since the programs 1972-73 season.
They did it after trailing 2-0 by scores of 25-23 and 25-22, then won three straight 27-25, 25-15 and 15-11 to secure a perfect 6-0 mark in the league. Walker had 12 digs and two aces.
“I played good defense and had an okay passing game,” Walker, a four-time MAC defensive player of the week, said.
The past week was a whirlwind for Walker and the Huskies. On Thursday they defeated Western Michigan University 3-1 to clinch the Mid-American Conference’s West Division and regular season crown. It was the Huskies first West Division title since 2006 and first regular season title since 2001. Walker led in the match with 25 digs.
That win was on the road and the team returned by bus after midnight. Walker, a journalism major, had two classes Friday, a 9 am. Speech performance class and a public relations class at 1 p.m. In between she had a brief workout and ice treatments for bumps, bruises and other injuries sustained in a position that is one of the most movement based in volleyball.
“I like to go in and at least jog and do a light lift,” Walker said. “It is an active recovery type of thing. I find that it helps me loosen up. My theory is that I slam into the ground at least 80 times per game. My knees and legs are pretty bruised up.”
Walker also had to pack up her jerseys, and homework and board the team bus again for a six-hour drive to Bowling Green.
On the bus trip the team coordinates jerseys, watches movies, listens to music, reads or does homework, has team meetings and generally interacts as a family. Each upper classman has a team manager duty. One tells the team what they will wear on the bus, what they watch, what to pack in their travel bags, etc. Walker’s duties are practice manager.
“We watched Seventh Heaven,” Walker mused as the bus traveled down I-90. “That was probably the most interesting thing that happened on this trip.”
Walker has a game day routine she follows.
“On the way there I listen to Kanye West and Jay Z,” Walker laughed. “Pretty loud in my head phones.”
In the locker room the team locks the coach out for a 30-minute dance off.
“We get real psyched up before games,” Walker said. “No one is allowed in our locker room. Our coach knocks at a certain time, the music is shut off, and he comes in and laughs at us and we have pregame strategy.”
A team nutritionist provides meal menus and diet plans.
“I live in an off campus apartment,” Walker said. “So I do most of my own meals and pretty much eat what I know is healthy.”
Before games the team will meet for a 3:30 chicken and pasta and vegetable meal. Snacks are another matter.
“I would say we have a bag in the back of the bus somewhere,” Walker laughed. “Someone always brings cookies or something. I am eating M&M’s right now.”
When the bus arrived at Bowling Green the team hit their hotel rooms for rest. After early morning team breakfast, stretching and pregame practice, and clinching the title at 2 p.m. it was time to motor back to campus.
“In high school we never rode on buses,” Walker said. “That took some getting used to. We pretty much live on the road in the season. I never imagined I would be in Chicago, this is like two different worlds.”
Walker was actually raised in Hoonah until age 10 and then moved back to Juneau. She played for the Crimson Bears through her junior season in 2006. Her JDHS teammates included Sarah Christianson, Rachelle Albay, Rachelle Miller, Carly Lehnhart, Lindsey Kato, Tara Hansen, Katy Nickerson, Kelly Walker, Cortney Wagner and Sammy Roguska.
Walker traded the JDHS red and black when her father’s Whitestone Logging business in Hoonah closed and they moved to Oregon. Walker knew Oregon had club volleyball that played year round and it would improve her chances for a scholarship. Walker’s senior year at Cottage Grove High School resulted in earning first team all district selection.
Now she wears Cardinal and Black for NIU.
“There is not really a comparison between high school and college,” Walker said. “In high school I could go from one sport to another pretty easily, they weren’t year round. Here it is pretty much every day we are in the gym practicing for two to three hours.”
In season Walker lifts weights three times a week, off season is four to five sessions per week, plus three conditioning sessions and open gym play and optional “mandatory” practices. The athletic facilities at NIU are one of the nicest and most advanced in the state. Incoming freshmen will spend the summer working out at the college to prepare for their first season.
“It is a full time job here,” Walker said. “We work hard but it is worth it. It has helped us get to where we are at now.”
Walker still has another year to go at NIU. After that she hopes to take an uncharacteristically Alaskan approach by aspiring to play beach or sand volleyball.
“I played beach volleyball in Alaska,” Walker laughed. “Sandy Beach, that’s where it’s at.”
Walker’s mother, step dad, and brothers still reside in Juneau.
“Every summer I come home,” Walker said. “I don’t get long enough breaks during the school year to come back. When I am there in the summer it is a nice vacation, because most people don’t get to be in that beautiful of a place. Seriously I miss Alaska so much.”
When home she also trains. Hours at the Floyd Dryden or Thunder Mountain track, lifting at Juneau Racquet Club and trying to supplement Olympic training lifts. That is what it takes to play division one volleyball.
Walker and the Huskies next play Nov. 17-20 in the MAC Tournament. As the No. 1 seed they will face No. 8 seed Bowling Green on Friday.
“I was that kid that just wanted to go and see what was out there,” Walker said. “I knew that volleyball would be a huge part of what ever I was doing in college. Now all my dreams are reality and it is great.”