by Leah Dassler
When spectators see junior Nicole Leonard compete at volleyball, there is no doubt she has a fighter’s spirit. Her skill on the court earned her 801 digs over the past two seasons along with 579 kills and 30 aces. However, what stands out the most to the people who know her best is her commitment to building strong relationships in all aspects of her life. Whether she’s leading her teammates in matches, working as a youth leader at St. Luke Lutheran Church, or connecting with elementary school students through Whitworth’s education program, Leonard invests in people.
“Building relationships is really important to me. With that, it goes through friendships, family, volleyball, and the youth group. With volleyball, if you don’t have a good relationship with a girl on the court, it’s not going to work out well. You’re not going to play well as a team,” Leonard said. “My family’s super important to me. They come up and support me all the time.”
For the 2014 season, Leonard moved up the leadership ranks on the team. With no seniors, she is one of only six upperclassmen. As a result, her leadership and rare two years of experience are key motivators for her teammates.
“She has a lot of qualities that make her a great leader but also her experience. Players look to her,” Head Coach Kati Bodecker said. “She leads through actions but also does a great job communicating with her team mates, letting them know the expectations of the program. She lets her actions speak first.”
As a freshman, Leonard started in all 23 matches and as a sophomore, she continued building the team dynamic when she started in all 28 matches. Her involvement cemented friendships with her teammates, especially with her fellow Californian and Pirate right-side player, junior Shawna Korshavn. After growing up in the same church in Thousand Oaks and playing club volleyball together, Korshavn’s friendship with Leonard speaks to Leonard’s passion for making connections with others.
“She helps out with the high-schoolers and middle-schools [at our church]. They were actually at the game [last Wednesday] and they were pumped to see her play,” Korshavn said. “With her being older–a junior on the team–she wants the freshmen to look up to her more as a person than as a skilled volleyball player. I think she really tries to praise God through her play and praise people through her play, by really lifting up the team and being a good role model.”
Although Leonard knew she always wanted to be a teacher, it was Whitworth’s education program that solidified Leonard’s decision to connect with younger children at a personal level. Getting into the classroom and interacting with the students brought out her passion for working with youth, Leonard said.
“Ever since I got to hang out with the kids, I knew it was a done deal. I’m going to be a teacher. I love it so much,” Leonard said.
This passion for people combined with a competitive nature developed through years of playing not only volleyball but softball as well, have strengthened Leonard so that she plays a foundational role as a teammate, youth leader, and friend.
“In Nicole I see a lot of strength. She’s a very strong person. She has had to battle and overcome injuries and she does her best not to let that affect her performance or her attitude out on the court,” Head Coach Kati Bodecker said. “There’s a lot of times, I think, where she’s actually in a lot of pain but I would not even notice because she doesn’t make that a point of focus.”
For Leonard, the focus is on others needs. When freshman Gracie Meiners joined the team this year, her first impressions of Leonard revealed Leonard’s people-centered outlook.
“What’s most important to Nicole is making sure our team dynamic is good. [She] makes sure we’re all working together and having a good time while still working hard,” Meiners said. “When I first met Nicole, she made me feel welcome and [she] always encouraged me to do my best. Skill-wise she’s extremely good, so watching her be a role model and set that high standard made me want to push myself and work harder too.”
Leonard plans to carry her relational focus and inner strength into her vocation as a future elementary school teacher and as an athlete striving with her teammates for an NWC title this season.