Freshman libero Eden Dolezal may be a rising star for the Seton Hall volleyball program, but the bright-eyed newcomer did not come to South Orange for the sparkling lights of New York City.
“No, I don’t want the city,” the native of LaPorte, Ind., said in an interview this week. “No, too much, too much. It’s crazy.”
Dolezal visited Seton Hall for the first time on Aug. 11, 2016, after head coach Allie Yaeger watched her at AAU Nationals in Orlando, Fla. Yaeger, a former libero herself, was searching for the next long-term answer at the position, with program icon Tessa Fournier set to enter her senior season.
The pioneer of the pink shirt is second in program history with 2,149 digs, but her legacy goes beyond the shade of her uniform and her standing in the record books.
Fournier was the perfect role model for a 2015 team that featured seven freshmen. One of those freshman, Abby Thelen, was enduring a baptism by fire in her first collegiate season.
“I really looked up to Tessa a lot,” Thelen, now a senior, said. “We only had two middles, so I honestly had to play. It’s just kind of one of those roles I had to step in and fill, and Tessa would always pump me up and get me excited. She’d be like, ‘You can do it.’ And that’s something I definitely try to emulate when I talk to the freshmen and sophomores.”
In 2016, the 6-foot-1 Thelen traded the trenches of middle blocker for the springboards of outside hitter. Now, in her senior season, the native of Fort Mitchell, Ky., is sixth in program history with 1,239 kills, sandwiched between Tricia Meyers, who is 106 ahead of her in fifth, and Jenna Meyers in seventh.
“That’s something I definitely think is crazy, especially starting in the middle,” Thelen said. “I think I had like 100 kills my freshman year. And then, now, to already have 1,000, it’s something that’s exciting and I’m really proud of.”
Positioned behind Thelen, Dolezal knew almost instantly that Seton Hall was the place for her.
A devout Catholic, Dolezal spent time this summer in Belize, building both a church and a house for the church’s missionaries. The “spunky”, as Thelen described her, teenager came to Seton Hall in part to further that faith, and she spends time every Monday at Bible study on campus.
But her decision was about more than faith. Dolezal toured universities nearly every weekend during her sophomore year of high school, visiting big universities in the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference, feeling insignificant at almost every step.
“I just got like these, these coaches, I felt like a number at these schools,” Dolezal said. “And here, I just felt like a name. And I told Coach, when I was sitting in her office, I said, ‘I feel like a name here.’”
“And actually, I committed on my visit here,” Dolezal added with a smile. “I really enjoyed it, and I feel like, I told Coach, ‘You know when the time’s right, and I feel like the time is right now. So, I committed at the office, right on the spot. When I said my goodbyes, I said, ‘I’m committed.’”
During her recruiting trip, Dolezal scrimmaged with the team. Full of energy, the future libero insisted to older, bigger teammates that she did not want them to hold back, an attitude that won over Thelen and others.
“She wanted to play, she wanted to get after it,” Thelen recalled. “She didn’t care that she was significantly younger than us, she wanted to dig us. She’s like, ‘Hit as hard as you can at me!’ She was that kid.”
Dolezal, meanwhile, was in awe of the outside hitter that was climbing up the record books. For her, befriending Thelen was like getting to know a celebrity.
“I thought she was really intimidating; I DMed her one time, I was so excited that she DM’d me back,” Dolezal said. “I thought she was an all-star. She had a bunch of followers on Instagram, she got a bunch of likes. I was like, ‘Oh my Gosh, this girl is famous.’”
This season, Thelen was one of only 30 collegiate volleyball players to be nominated for the Senior CLASS Award, which recognizes excellence on the court, in the classroom and throughout the community. It’s the same award that Fournier was nominated for two seasons ago, when Thelen was a sophomore.
Thelen’s relationship with the team’s libero has since come full circle. Now, the player in the pink shirt looks to her for guidance.
That wisdom was needed on the team’s first road trip this season, at the Blue and White Classic in Buffalo, N.Y., where Dolezal and Thelen were paired together as roommates. Playing in her first collegiate action, Dolezal was overwhelmed by the occasion. Noticing this, Thelen stepped in and delivered the perfect message.
“It was really a hard time because, it was a big arena, I had no idea what I was doing because it was my first D-I game,” Dolezal said. “And she’s like, ‘You’re a good passer.’ And I still remember that, after I had passed a bad ball, we had taken a timeout. I’ll never forget those words.”
Over the last two months, the 5-foot-6 Dolezal has settled in as a linchpin in the back row, with a team-leading 248 digs. The transition has had its challenging moments, but with the help of her best friend in the front row, Dolezal has adapted and flourished.
And in a season where the Pirates have fallen short of early expectations, Thelen and company can find some solace in the courageous attitude on display from the strikingly mature freshman. With each passing day, Dolezal offers glimpses into one of the next faces of Seton Hall volleyball.
“I want to give back to the little girl that fell in love with the sport,” Dolezal said. “Every time I play, I feel like, if it’s overwhelming, like when we do a lot of suicides in practice one day, you really have to go back, and it’s just like not about now.
“You play for that person who fell in love with the sport when you’re 10 years old. That person that woke up every day at 6 a.m. to go play like five matches in one day.
“Because, sometimes you just get in this tunnel, you don’t even know what day it is, what you’re doing, but, you really have to think about, like step aside, and look at the bigger picture.”
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.