(Photo by Mark A Philbrick/BYU Photo)
From being an eighth grader who didn’t know a serve from a set to becoming one of the best blockers in the country, BYU middle blocker Nicole Warner has done her best to “be big” in everything she puts her mind to.
“My mom was always supportive with anything I wanted to do,” said the 6-foot-2 senior from Rigby, Idaho. “She’d always say, ‘Okay, go be big. Go make a difference.’”
Starting her athletic career on the basketball court, Warner took up volleyball in eighth grade as a way to stay occupied and in shape during the fall. With only church volleyball experience, she found herself confused when the coach told the team to start serving drills during the first practice. Warner had to ask a teammate what a serve was.
Through junior high volleyball Warner came to love the sport, continuing her volleyball career through high school and into club competition. With few club basketball teams in her area, she decided to focus on volleyball, as the club teams brought her greater exposure to college coaches. Her choice landed her at BYU, where Warner has been a formidable force on the front line from her first match.
Warner’s determination to go big put her among the top 10 Division I blockers in NCAA women’s volleyball in 2011. During the season, Warner ranked as high as No. 1 for blocks per set before finishing the year ranked No. 6. With the help of her team, Warner led the middle blockers to put BYU at No. 6 in the nation for blocking in 2011.
“We usually play opposite each other, so we compete against each other and push each other,” said Kathryn LeCheminant, a returning starter and fellow middle blocker. “She’s an intense competitor, so I have to be just as competitive if I want to win the drill.”
Looking at her blocking statistics, one wouldn’t have guessed Warner had sat out of practice the two months prior to BYU’s season opener.
“I was so excited to play [in 2011] because I’d had a foot injury that was holding me off the court before the season started,” Warner said. “Once the season began, I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter what any doctor says, I’m playing. The trainers will get me ready right now, but I’m playing once Aug. 26 comes around.’”
When the season started, she was ready to go big. The then-junior middle blocker recorded 162 blocks over the course of BYU’s successful 2011 campaign, contributing 1.51 blocks per set while dishing out 1.92 kills per set—the third-most on the team. Warner helped the Cougars to a 21-9 overall and 10-6 conference record for their first season with more than 20 wins since 2007. The record was good for a No. 3 ranking in the West Coast Conference.
Warner hopes to be back on top for 2012, despite facing a major setback during the offseason.
Beginning in October 2011, she had trouble with what seemed to be a simple sore shoulder. Despite doctors’ treatments and taking time off during Christmas break, Warner was unable to get rid of the soreness. An MRI revealed a more serious injury than previously thought, prompting the need for surgery and a trying recovery.
“It was really hard because I couldn’t feed myself,” Warner recalled. “I couldn’t do my hair. I had Kat (LeCheminant) come over and blow dry my hair. I told her, ‘I just want my hair to be straight. I look horrible. Can you come blow dry my hair?’’
Through it all, she wondered if she would be able to play volleyball at the same level as her past three seasons or if she’d even be able to play at all.
With so major a setback to her athletic career, it would have been easy for Warner to give up. The work to get back in functioning condition after surgery, let alone the athletic condition to be among the best blockers in the country, is an extreme effort for anyone. But Warner faced her recovery the way she’s faced every challenge, by going big and doing whatever it took to restore her shoulder to its former capacity.
While not having the use of one shoulder made it hard to do even basic tasks, Warner fought through, coming to practice whenever she wasn’t at physical therapy sessions.
Warner has been making her way back to playing condition during the offseason, but had to sit out during spring competition. Watching from the sidelines, Warner gained a greater appreciation for the talent of her teammates.
“Taking myself out of the equation, I realized what a good team and what great teammates I have and how blessed I am to have them,” Warner said. “I only want to add to what they have going on the court, because they were successful in their spring season.”
Unlike many BYU athletes, playing for the Cougars didn’t cross her mind when first considering where to attend college.
“It kind of fell into my lap,” Warner said. “I wasn’t even looking at BYU when I was being recruited by a lot of different schools.”
In fact, two of the top schools on her list were BYU’s in-state rivals Utah State and the University of Utah.
“Utah State was only two hours from home and it seemed like a really good school,” Warner said. “But it didn’t have a nursing program, and I really wanted to be a nurse at that point. BYU wasn’t interested, so I thought there were other options.”
Utah State offered her a scholarship, as did Utah, though Utah offered it for after her freshman year. Not wanting to pay out-of-state tuition, Warner wasn’t sure which to choose. At that point, BYU hadn’t shown interest and Warner didn’t consider it a possibility.
One of her reasons for interest in Utah State was then-Aggie assistant coach Shawn Olmstead, a coach she recognized could help her go big and reach for her goals on and off the court. Olmstead offered her the scholarship to Utah State, but soon after, to Warner’s disappointment, she learned that Olmstead left the Aggie coaching staff.
“I really wanted to play for Shawn,” she remembered. “He was a really good coach and I really respected him.”
Soon after, Warner received a call that made her college decision simple.
“I remember one day I was sitting on my couch and he called me and said, ‘Hey, did you hear I got a new job at BYU?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I heard that.’” Warner recalled. “He said, ‘Well, we have a spot open for a middle. Do you want it? We have a scholarship for you.’ And I said, ‘I’ll think about it,’ but in my mind the wheels had started turning and I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! BYU!’
“I knew in the back of my mind that I couldn’t say no to that. I ended up calling him back the day after or a few hours after, I don’t remember, and said, ‘I’ll take it. I’ll come. Let’s go.’”
Warner faced another hurdle when she arrived at BYU. In spite of the talent that got her on the team, she soon realized that collegiate volleyball was a much different sport than the club and high school volleyball she’d played in Idaho. She found it hard to keep up with the fast pace.
“That’s when I learned that it didn’t matter what happened, I was going to go in and make a difference by doing this well,” Warner said.
Warner redshirted her first season, giving her time to prepare for her blocking career.
Through three years of competition, Warner has enjoyed success on the front line. She went up big at middle blocker with four block assists to lead the team in a victory against Ole Miss in her debut match. Warner has led the team in season blocks since her freshman year, when she averaged 1.22 blocks per set. Currently at 455 total blocks in her career, Warner has already signed her name to BYU’s top-10 list for career blocks.
”I’ve never regretted that decision (to come to BYU),” Warner said. “It’s been such a wonderful experience. The people, the athletics, the staff, the teachers, the school has helped me grow in so many ways. It’s pushed me, but it’s helped me grow. You’re not growing if you’re not being pushed at all.”
With a fierce lineup of opponents in the 2012 season and a competitive conference schedule, the team will count on Warner to show once again what it means to go big and make a difference at BYU in her final season as a Cougar.