When senior Jessica Granquist came to the Gophers volleyball team in 2008, her teammates knew exactly what they’d get.
Maybe they didn’t expect her to become what she is now: an elite Division I libero that ranks among Minnesota’s all-time greats.
But she had a fighter’s mentality — her first of many signs of greatness.
“I had always heard that she’s a tenacious defender,” senior Hailey Cowles said, “always going all-out and hitting her head in the ground and running into chairs and just pursuing the ball. When she came here, that’s what we got.”
Granquist’s relentless approach to defense has earned her an array of achievements throughout her four-year Minnesota career.
She was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, when she tallied 668 digs, the second-most by a Minnesota player in a single season.
She helped the Gophers reach the Final Four in 2009 by recording 56 digs in five matches, including a then-career-high 21 digs in their regional semifinal win.
In 129 career matches, Granquist ranks third all-time in digs in Minnesota history.
That’s elite company considering the Gophers’ history of producing some of the best defensive players in the nation.
Minnesota’s previous two liberos — Paula Gentil (2002-05) and Christine Tan (2006-09) — rank first and second in digs in program history. Gentil’s career total of 2,791 digs was an NCAA record until 2008.
During her freshman and sophomore seasons, Granquist watched Tan compete as the starting libero.
“That really instilled the passion within me,” Granquist said. “I’ve always had it, but seeing it live with [Tan] every day really excited me to replicate that within myself. She always had energy on and off the court, but at the same time remained calm and cool.”
Granquist wasn’t known as calm and cool when she came to Minnesota — but once Tan graduated and Granquist took over the starting role, she became a different player.
“She’s definitely grown into a more calm defender,” Cowles said. “She used to run into chairs and all that stuff — she’s kind of calmed her body motions down and been able to simplify the game, which has really helped her. She’s making the easy plays even easier.”
In her first two seasons, Granquist had 502 digs and a 2.37 digs-per-set average. In her last two seasons, she has more than doubled that output, collecting 1,181 digs for a 4.90 average.
Since 2010, no Big Ten player has more digs than Granquist.
“It felt like freedom, being always out there,” Granquist said of her transition to the starting job. “It was nerve-wracking at first, because I’m following Christine Tan’s footsteps. … I knew I had to step up and the pressure was big. It just excited me and filled me up.”
Granquist has recorded 30 or more digs six times since 2010, which also ranks first in the conference.
Her 38-dig match in a win in October 2010 against Purdue ranks sixth in Gophers history. The last player to match that number was Tan, who had 39 digs in a match in September 2008.
“Sometimes I’m in a mentality where it’s ‘see ball, get ball — every ball,’” Granquist said. “I just have that desire and passion that kind of takes over me. It’s just like whatever ball I see I’m like, ‘OK, go.’ It’s just like an attachment that my eyes have to the ball.”
While Granquist’s defense has dazzled fans and opponents, her serve receive — which requires a different skill set — has been a stabilizer for a Gophers team that has struggled to pass consistently.
“She anchors the serve-receive line in passing,” interim head coach Laura Bush said. “[She has accepted] the requirement of having to be good every night because she’s the only libero on the team. She’s held true to that for her entire career.”
Granquist has passed more serves since 2008 than any Minnesota player, and has allowed just 4.7 percent of serves to land for an ace in her career.
“She was a very steady passer for us from the very beginning,” Cowles said. “It’s hard to come in as a freshman and do that, and I think it set the way for her career to blossom over the last four years.”
This season, Granquist has taken on more of a leadership role as the Gophers have transitioned to a new coaching staff and playing system.
As Minnesota (18-11) has battled through the ups and downs of a rigorous schedule, her numbers have dropped slightly — from 5.18 digs per set to 4.58.
But her relentless drive remains.
“You never have to worry about if she’s going to be fully engaged in practice or if she’s going to fully go for a ball from the first play,” Cowles said. “She’s always focused in and ready to go.”
She’s the type that leads by example, Cowles said, but also a voice to guide the younger players.
“I wouldn’t say she’s the most vocal in the locker room, but when she does give her advice it’s always very helpful,” Cowles said.
One player that has benefited from Granquist’s leadership is sophomore Tori Dixon, a middle blocker who was named to the All-Big Ten First Team on Nov. 29.
Since joining the Gophers last season, Dixon has grown close to Granquist off the court. She said Granquist is the kind of player that keeps the team in check.
“She’s very competitive and she does add a lot of teamwork,” Dixon said. “If she sees anyone drifting off, she’ll quickly come at them. She’ll be like, ‘Come here, we need to stay together, we need to play together.’ I think that’s her biggest attribute.”
With 1,683 career digs, Granquist will lead Minnesota into the 2011 NCAA Tournament with one last chance to reach her goal of winning a national championship.
It’s the kind of goal that Granquist plays for.
“There’s no room for a delay or less urgency than the tournament demands,” Granquist said. “Every ball has to be up, or pursued to the ultimate max.”
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