Matt Botsford knew when he was hired as FGCU volleyball coach almost six years ago that it would take tireless work to turn the Eagles into a top-50 national program.
Today, that mission accomplished, Botsford makes sure his current roster understands something about making the next leap into the top 25: It will be even harder.
Fortunately for the Eagles coach, he has junior star Cortney VanLiew helping lead the push.
“When your best players are the hardest working people in the gym, that’s when you have good things happen,” Botsford said VanLiew, who also is an honorable mention All-American, 3.9 GPA accounting major and president of the FGCU Eagles Council student-athlete advisory committee.
“She is brilliant. Not just as an athlete,” he said. “She’s brilliant in the classroom. She’s got one of the most amazing work ethics I’ve ever seen. It’s challenging to be successful in all of these arenas. When you see somebody doing it as effectively as she does, it really amazes me sometimes.”
Almost a year since defeating nationally ranked UCF in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in FGCU’s first NCAA D-I postseason appearance, the Eagles (24-3) are poised to take the top seed into the ASUN Tournament, Nov. 21-23 at home in Alico Arena.
VanLiew, the first All-American in FGCU volleyball history and one of only a couple handfuls of All-Americans in school history across all sports, again is playing a leading role, as she did last season when program career kills leader Amanda Carroll went down early in the year with a knee injury.
It was a rare instance when VanLiew was able to exceed Botsford’s sky-high expectations, which are only so lofty because he knew what a gem of a player he was getting when he recruited the undersized, somewhat overlooked three-sport star from Seymour, Ind.
“You wonder how somebody as a sophomore is going to take on that kind of role, and she was amazing,” Botsford said. “She’s special, there’s no doubt about it.”
Even as a star outside hitter in high school, VanLiew didn’t have any offers to continue playing the position at Power 5 colleges because of her height, listed at 5-11 but closer to 5-9, at best.
Most schools wanted to turn her into a libero. But VanLiew, one of 10 national finalists for the Wendy’s High School Heisman Scholarship, wanted to stay in the front row. She chose FGCU over Memphis and St. Louis, where she had offers to play outside hitter.
“I’m so glad that I picked here,” said VanLiew, who is only the fourth player in program history with more than 1,000 career kills and is on pace to pass 2016 beach volleyball Olympian Brooke Sweat for second place on the program career kills before the start of the postseason.
“I love the people. I love the place. I love the program. Everything has exceeded my expectations.”
Size isn’t the issue, according to her coach.
“I think sometimes coaches get a little too committed to this idea that it’s the size that matters,” Botsford said. “She’s a tremendous athlete, and she’s got a huge arm. I know there’s a ton of people who wish they would have recruited her the way we did.”
As the youngest of three siblings from a height-filled, ultra-competitive, athletically gifted family, VanLiew said she’s long played with a chip on her shoulder because of her size.
That doesn’t go just for when she faced taller front-row players in top-tier club competition during high school but when she competed in her own family, in which she’s the only person under 6-2.
“They don’t take you as seriously,” VanLiew said of being shorter than club and college foes. “I’ve been undersized my whole life. It’s something I’ve had to work through to impact the game in other ways. I look forward to playing bigger every single day.”
VanLiew’s mother, Janet, is 6-2 and was a four-year volleyball letter-winner at Louisville in the early 1980s. Known then by her maiden name, Craddock, VanLiew’s mother was a 1983 Olympic Festival medalist and still ranks in the program top 10 in aces.
VanLiew’s father, Mike, is 6-5 and was a standout high school swimmer, another of the sports in which Cortney excelled in high school, along with track and field.
Her older brothers Chad and Toby are 6-3 and 6-8, respectively.
From Chad, who won a state level Wendy’s High School Heisman Award, she said she always had a high bar in athletics and academics to chase. And beat. And while Toby, who played NAIA-level college basketball in Indiana, didn’t have the same natural gifts as his siblings, she said she learned by watching how hard he worked to succeed.
“He’s been a role model. Both of them have been my entire life,” VanLiew said.
As the postseason arrives, VanLiew knows the sizable opportunities ahead. But she doesn’t lose sight of the tiny details needed to keep pushing herself and FGCU to ever greater heights, however much work it takes.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much,” VanLiew said. “I love it. I love being pushed to the next level. (FGCU coaches) have pushed me places I never really thought was possible.”