Oct. 6, 2010

Northern Iowa should be thankful the Blankenships do not hold a grudge. At least Ellie Blankenship, the Panther's record-setting senior libero, let go of the past pretty easily. For her sister, Carrie, on the other hand, it may have taken a little while longer.

Carrie was a four-year letterwinner on the volleyball team at Northern Illinois. During her senior season, she helped the Huskies to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. The postseason run didn't last long as NIU was swept in the first round.

The opponent? You guessed it. Northern Iowa was the team that ended Carrie Blankenship's college career.

That was 2001. Fast forward to 2006.

Ellie was a senior at Kennedy High School in Cedar Falls, Iowa, trying to decide where she wanted to play college volleyball. Obviously her sister had thoughts on what schools to possibly attend (or not attend). But she wasn't the only family member to play a college sport as mom, Lois, was on the Iowa women's basketball team and brother, Troy, played football at Iowa State. Everyone had opinions.

When it came down to it, Ellie had a feel for the Panther program. She understood the place UNI volleyball held in the community, saw the way coach Bobbi Petersen handled her squad and they way she got them to play together as a team, not as individuals on the court at the same time.

2010SEP17_VolleyballVsMissouriState_sc249.JPG "Bobbi always had a really good program and growing up, you would hear about Northern Iowa and the big upsets and the followers they had," Ellie said. "It's definitely a whole community thing, where a lot of other places, it's not really a big deal."

With the big wins and big crowds, it was a perfect fit for Ellie. And when Carrie signed off, that made everything fall into place.

"She was a little hesitant when I first decided to go here, but luckily we play in a different place now, so it's not as hard (for Carrie) to come to my games," Ellie said with a laugh.

The rest has been history. Literally.

Since her first year on the squad, Ellie Blankenship has re-written the Panther history books. She set the UNI record for digs three consecutive years, raising the bar to 624 as a freshman before posting 676 as a sophomore. The current record came last year when she posted 698 digs.

"She's a very gifted athlete, but I also think that she's a kid who is ultra-competitive," Petersen said. "She's not real loud and vocal in that sense, but you look in her eyes and you know she's not going to let the ball hit the floor."

With half a season left to play, Blankenship has already set the Missouri Valley Conference record with 2,313 digs entering tonight's non-league matchup against South Dakota State. Just the 20th player in Division I history to record more than 2,300 digs in a career, Blankenship's current pace (5.16 digs per set which rank 35th nationally) has her on track to challenge for a spot in the sport's all-time top 10.

Want some more perspective? Try this: only six Division I players have ever recorded more than 2,500 digs.

That's pretty elite company she has a chance to join. But it's just great reading for the fans. It doesn't mean much right now to Blankenship, who is genuinely humble when she talks about her record-setting performances.

"It really hasn't hit me. It hasn't sunk in, like a lot of things haven't and probably won't until I'm finished," Blankenship said. "It's really cool, but more than anything I want to make our program look good. I'm happy about that because my success is not a reflection of myself, but a reflection of the teammates who have pushed me and the coaches who have made me better. I'm happy to be able to represent them and my school at a high level."

Blankenship's high level of play has taken the Panthers to a 78-23 record over the past three seasons and three consecutive NCAA appearances. Last year's squad went 31-3 and was undefeated in 18 conference matches. They also won the MVC tournament for good measure before reaching the NCAA second round.

This year, the Panthers are ranked No. 14 in the country with a 14-2 record and have extended their regular-season league win streak to 24 matches. Out of conference, they own wins over solid teams like Western Kentucky, Purdue and Baylor and earned a major boost of confidence coming back from two sets down to defeat then-eighth-ranked Minnesota on its home court.

Despite the strong start that has boosted UNI to the No. 4 spot in the first official RPI released this week, Petersen knows the Panthers still have a long way to go. Things can be finely tuned on offense and she feels the defense will continue to mature. The Panthers haven't reached their potential and that's a good thing in her mind.

One thing that will not change any time soon is the balanced makeup of the squad. UNI is the only team in the Missouri Valley with five players averaging at least 2.0 kills per set. Six Panthers have at least 100 kills through the opening 16 matches.

"We don't have that big gun or stud that's going to save us a lot of times, so it definitely has to be a full team effort when we compete," Petersen said. "And I think against Minnesota it took everybody and (it helped) everybody understand their role and purpose that they are important to where we are going to go this year."

Five different players also average at least 2.0 digs per set, making it difficult for opponents to key on any one position, although it is pretty easy to see who will most likely keep a ball alive.

"Everyone feeds off (Blankenship) whether it's other people in the back court or the offense stealing a lot of confidence knowing the ball is going to be up and you better get in transition because the ball is going to be alive," Petersen said. "She just brings that to our team and I always say that if our defense is struggling, it seems our offense goes right with it. So it's the meat of our team and she's obviously a kid who leads the way with that, not just by her abilities but her total attitude in general."

It's an unselfish attitude. One that luckily doesn't hold a grudge either.