The last place Madison Fisher expected to find herself Saturday night during the NCAA Division II West Regional championship match was, well, on the actual volleyball court.
By design, this was to be a red-shirt season for the freshman setter. She would learn under the tutelage of All-American senior setter Morgan Hooe, preserve her four years of eligibility and do a rookie's chores -- shag balls at practice, carry the medical kit and lug the odd extra team bag on road trips.
But the vagaries of sport have a way of wrecking the best of intentions, which is how Fisher, who to that point had not played a second all season, took a star turn as unwavering as it was unlikely.
With Hooe shelved by a knee injury for most of the first set and part of the second, Fisher replaced her in what was only the most important match in UAA's 37-season history. Oh, and a raucous program-record crowd of 2,710 inside the Alaska Airlines Center had the joint jumping, so much that Seawolves coach Chris Green said he had to shout instructions to players whenever the team huddled.
So, you know, no pressure, kid.
Yet Fisher furnished the Seawolves a spark of inspiration -- and execution -- in their four-set win over Western Washington. UAA (32-2) earned a spot in the Elite Eight, which it opens Thursday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with a quarterfinal match against Angelo State (34-3) of Texas.
"That's a pressure situation she was put in," Green said Monday morning. "She could have just fallen apart."
Instead, Fisher, in parts of two sets before Hooe returned from the training room, delivered three kills on just five total attacks, six assists and five digs. And sacrifice -- so long, red-shirt season -- that won't soon be forgotten.
Hooe, who Fisher called "a great role model" and mentor, after Saturday's match marveled at Fisher's selflessness and her contribution.
Fisher, after Monday morning's practice, sounded like a savvy veteran: "I did my part."
The 19-year-old who goes by Madi spent the early moments of Saturday's match exactly as she had every moment in UAA's previous 33 matches -- standing at the end of the bench with her teammates, cheering on the Seawolves' starters.
Even when Hooe went down hard to the floor early in the first set, Fisher initially didn't give it much credence. After all, Hooe has spent her whole life throwing her body around volleyball courts and soccer pitches, is seemingly indestructible and, by reputation, tougher than differential equations. UAA in the last three seasons had played 326 sets, and Hooe played every one.
"I didn't think much of it, in the beginning," Fisher said. "But she kept not getting up, kept not getting up, kept not getting up."
As Hooe was helped off the court and taken to the training room, Green shared a quick word with Fisher -- they had planned for such a contingency -- and suddenly she was playing in her first college match.
"I was really nervous, more than anything," Fisher said. "I was mainly focused on not freaking out."
She said she had no hesitation about burning her red-shirt year.
"We executed the plan we had," Fisher said. "It's what needed to happen. It's always the team over 'me.' "
Hooe returned to the match early in the second set and helped spearhead UAA's 11th consecutive victory.
Even though she had not played all season until Saturday, Fisher has talked on the phone after each match with her parents, Mitzi Moran and Jeff Fisher, who are back in her hometown of Greeley, Colorado, and watch Seawolves matches online.
After Saturday's match, as Madi was in a car with teammates, headed to an Applebee's for a post-match meal, she FaceTimed her folks.
"They were incredibly excited," Madi said. "They said they were crying the whole match."
Fisher said Mitzi and Jeff, and one of Madi's two older brothers, Brady, plan to drive to Sioux Falls to watch UAA play Thursday. Fisher, of course, may not play -- Hooe didn't practice Monday morning, but Green thinks she'll be good to go for the quarterfinal match.
The Fisher are all about volleyball -- Madi said her parents met playing the sport and Brady and her other brother, Brock, play college club volleyball. And the Fishers will be a presence in the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls.
Fisher said her parents and Brady will be at Thursday's match dressed in onesies -- Madi's pretty sure the outfits are a snowman, a reindeer and Santa Claus.
"Very Christmas-themed," she said.
Sounds like a star turn of another sort.