By Mike Ashcraft
ATHENS, Ohio -- Stephanie Olman could certainly have been forgiven for feeling frustrated.
The Maumee, Ohio, native has spent the majority of her volleyball career being moved from one position to another year after year, both in high school and in college.
Olman began her career as both a setter and a hitter as a freshman at Anthony Wayne High School, moved to outside hitter as a sophomore and then spent her junior and senior campaigns as a setter. Serving as a three-year team captain, she racked up over 1,000 career kills and garnered Honorable Mention All-Ohio recognition in 2013 and '14.
Olman was recruited to Athens to play setter by former Ohio volleyball head coach Ryan Theis. She spent her 2015 freshman season backing up one of the best Bobcats to ever play the position in program history in Abby Gilleland. A 2013 and '14 American Volleyball Coaches Association Honorable Mention All-America selection, Gilleland wrapped up her Bobcat career with 4,702 assists, which ranks third in program history. She earned AVCA All-Northeast Region selection in 2015, giving her the distinction of being the first student-athlete in Ohio volleyball history to earn all-region honors three years in a row. Gilleland was named both Mid-American Conference Player of the Year and Setter of the Year in both 2013 and '14. As a senior in 2015, Gilleland earned First Team All-MAC honors for the third year in a row while leading Ohio to a MAC tournament crown and the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Championship field.
Olman, who played in just 13 matches and posted 10 kills and five assists in her rookie season, waited her turn, all the while learning from Gilleland's trademark intensity and confidence. Her 2016 sophomore season finally rolled around, and she battled with Katelyn Burke for the starting setter job. After ultimately earning the starting role, she led the team and ranked third in the MAC with a career-high 1,065 assists Her 10.98 assists per set were good for 26th in the country, first in the MAC and fifth-best in program history in the rally scoring era.
Needless to say, a move back to outside hitter was the furthest thing from her mind.
"I thought I was just going to be setting again like last year and competing for the setting position," said Olman. "I had no idea that playing outside was even an option."
Fourth-year Ohio volleyball head coach Deane Webb brought in freshman setter Vera Giacomazzi out of San Vendemiano, Italy, to compete with Olman in the preseason for the starting job in 2017. Giacomazzi emerged as the starter at setter, and she has rewarded the Bobcats by ranking 11th in the country and first in the conference with 981 assists through 24 matches this year.
Olman could have easily taken the route of sulking over beginning her junior season on the bench. Instead, she chose a path of positivity for the betterment of her team.
"Obviously, it's difficult," said Olman. "It's not an easy thing to go from starting and being on the court the whole time to being on the bench. Just knowing that is my role and I just have to take it as it is was something I just kept putting through my mind. I just did my best to be the best teammate possible."
Olman's team-first mentality wound up paying dividends after the Bobcats' season took an unexpected turn. It started when both of Ohio's captains -- senior outside hitter Jaime Kosiorek and redshirt junior middle blocker Katie Nelson -- were lost due to major injuries in a 3-1 setback at Dayton on Aug. 29. Kosiorek suffered a torn ACL that ended her year after just four matches while Nelson has missed every match since due to a concussion. Suddenly, Ohio found itself with only two healthy upperclassmen -- Olman and redshirt senior middle blocker Ali Lake.
"I had to lead more vocally than I'm used to because the two biggest voices on our team went down," said Olman. "Even in high school, I wasn't normally the most vocal person, and I'm still not. But, I'm trying really hard to lead by example and by my play. I'm still working to improve on the vocal side because that's obviously something that I struggle with. It's just something I had to step up faster than I thought I was going to have to. I thought I would have another year to be that vocal player, but it's a great opportunity to be able to be one of the oldest players on the court."
The losses of Kosiorek and Nelson gave Olman the opportunity to lead. But, it was another injury suffered in a 3-2 triumph over Oklahoma on Sept. 1 that provided her with the chance to play a position she never dreamed she would in college. Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Carley Remmers, who moved into the starting role of No. 2 outside hitter after Kosiorek's injury, went down with an ankle injury in the victory over the Sooners that would keep her out of 10-straight matches.
Webb turned to Olman to help the Bobcats in their time of need at outside hitter -- a position she had not practiced, let alone played in a match, since her days at Anthony Wayne.
"Honestly, I just kind of took it as it was," said Olman. "I kind of laughed about it because I hadn't played it since sophomore year of high school. I was just kind of like, 'OK, here we go.' I just knew that in that moment my team needed someone to step up in that position. I was pretty confident that I could do a pretty good job at it."
Olman made her first start on the outside in a tough 3-2 loss to High Point on Sept. 2 in the final match of the Bobcat Invitational. She provided Ohio with eight kills as she began her adjustment from setter to outside hitter.
"It's being in control of the offense as opposed to having someone else in control," said Olman of the position change. "Sometimes, I still feel myself going for the second ball and I'm like, 'Oh yeah, it's not me anymore.' It's kind of letting someone else take control and having me kind of be behind the net. It's a completely different role, but I like it."
Slowly, but surely, Olman's athleticism and work ethic began to pay off. Since MAC play began, she ranks third on the team with 108 kills (2.51 per set) and has logged double-digit kills six times -- including a career-high 16 against Bowling Green on Sept. 30.
"The reps in practice are honestly what's helping me the most," said Olman. "At the beginning of the year, I was playing on the outside in more matches than I was in practice. That's why at the beginning it kind of started off slow. But, since I've gotten more reps in the gym here during practice, it's just been going up from there."
Olman particularly impressed in a 3-0 sweep of MAC West Division preseason favorite Ball State on Oct. 14 at the Convocation Center. She hit a career-best .267 with 12 kills and matched her career high four assisted blocks.
"I've always been so impressed with her work ethic," said Webb following the Ball State match. "You're kind of coming in to a tough spot, if you put yourself in her shoes. You come in behind Abby, who is one of the better setters that has ever played here and is a dominant team leader. You're asked to be the setter. She had been sometimes hitting, sometimes setting throughout her club and high school career. Then, you have to follow that kid. There were some struggles last year, and there were some frustrations. The one thing that I just love about Steph is that she always works, regardless of whether it's going well or going poorly. There's no one on our team that comes in our office and watches more video than Steph. She works hard and puts herself in a good physical place to be effective on the court. She's one of those kids that you pull for. For me, I just always pull for the kids that work that hard, even if it's not going your way. I'm just really, really happy for her to get that result."
Despite all the adversity this season, Ohio is very much in the hunt to clinch a berth in the 2017 MAC Championship, which is set to be held Nov. 16-19 in Oxford, Ohio. The Bobcats (11-13, 5-5 MAC) can take another step toward achieving that this evening (Oct. 27) when they play host to MAC East Division rival Akron (6-16, 2-8 MAC) in a 7 p.m. ET matchup at the Convo.
"This is my third year here, and I've seen things happen and work out for the better," said Olman. "Just staying positive and working hard to get our goal at the end."
Olman could have been frustrated. Instead, she chose to be positive, to be a good teammate, to keep working. Because of that, her and the Bobcats could be rewarded with another run at a conference championship next month.