Granquist leads Gophers into NCAA tournament with new mentality

The senior has the most digs of any Big Ten player since 2010.

Charlie Armitz

When senior Jessica Granquist came to the Gophers volleyball team in 2008, her teammates knew exactly what theyâÄôd get.

Maybe they didnâÄôt expect her to become what she is now: an elite Division I libero that ranks among MinnesotaâÄôs all-time greats.

But she had a fighterâÄôs mentality âÄî her first of many signs of greatness.

âÄúI had always heard that sheâÄôs a tenacious defender,âÄù senior Hailey Cowles said, âÄúalways going all-out and hitting her head in the ground and running into chairs and just pursuing the ball. When she came here, thatâÄôs what we got.âÄù

GranquistâÄôs relentless approach to defense has earned her an array of achievements throughout her four-year Minnesota career.

She was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, when she tallied 668 digs, the second-most by a Minnesota player in a single season.

She helped the Gophers reach the Final Four in 2009 by recording 56 digs in five matches, including a then-career-high 21 digs in their regional semifinal win.

In 129 career matches, Granquist ranks third all-time in digs in Minnesota history.

ThatâÄôs elite company considering the GophersâÄô history of producing some of the best defensive players in the nation.

MinnesotaâÄôs previous two liberos âÄî Paula Gentil (2002-05) and Christine Tan (2006-09) âÄî rank first and second in digs in program history. GentilâÄôs career total of 2,791 digs was an NCAA record until 2008.

During her freshman and sophomore seasons, Granquist watched Tan compete as the starting libero.

âÄúThat really instilled the passion within me,âÄù Granquist said. âÄúIâÄôve always had it, but seeing it live with [Tan] every day really excited me to replicate that within myself. She always had energy on and off the court, but at the same time remained calm and cool.âÄù

Granquist wasnâÄôt known as calm and cool when she came to Minnesota âÄî but once Tan graduated and Granquist took over the starting role, she became a different player.

âÄúSheâÄôs definitely grown into a more calm defender,âÄù Cowles said. âÄúShe used to run into chairs and all that stuff âÄî sheâÄôs kind of calmed her body motions down and been able to simplify the game, which has really helped her. SheâÄôs making the easy plays even easier.âÄù

In her first two seasons, Granquist had 502 digs and a 2.37 digs-per-set average. In her last two seasons, she has more than doubled that output, collecting 1,181 digs for a 4.90 average.

Since 2010, no Big Ten player has more digs than Granquist.

âÄúIt felt like freedom, being always out there,âÄù Granquist said of her transition to the starting job. âÄúIt was nerve-wracking at first, because IâÄôm following Christine TanâÄôs footsteps. âĦ I knew I had to step up and the pressure was big. It just excited me and filled me up.âÄù

Granquist has recorded 30 or more digs six times since 2010, which also ranks first in the conference.

Her 38-dig match in a win in October 2010 against Purdue ranks sixth in Gophers history. The last player to match that number was Tan, who had 39 digs in a match in September 2008.

âÄúSometimes IâÄôm in a mentality where itâÄôs âÄòsee ball, get ball âÄî every ball,âÄôâÄù Granquist said. âÄúI just have that desire and passion that kind of takes over me. ItâÄôs just like whatever ball I see IâÄôm like, âÄòOK, go.âÄô ItâÄôs just like an attachment that my eyes have to the ball.âÄù

While GranquistâÄôs defense has dazzled fans and opponents, her serve receive âÄî which requires a different skill set âÄî has been a stabilizer for a Gophers team that has struggled to pass consistently.

âÄúShe anchors the serve-receive line in passing,âÄù interim head coach Laura Bush said. âÄú[She has accepted] the requirement of having to be good every night because sheâÄôs the only libero on the team. SheâÄôs held true to that for her entire career.âÄù

Granquist has passed more serves since 2008 than any Minnesota player, and has allowed just 4.7 percent of serves to land for an ace in her career.

âÄúShe was a very steady passer for us from the very beginning,âÄù Cowles said. âÄúItâÄôs hard to come in as a freshman and do that, and I think it set the way for her career to blossom over the last four years.âÄù

This season, Granquist has taken on more of a leadership role as the Gophers have transitioned to a new coaching staff and playing system.

As Minnesota (18-11) has battled through the ups and downs of a rigorous schedule, her numbers have dropped slightly âÄî from 5.18 digs per set to 4.58.

But her relentless drive remains.

âÄúYou never have to worry about if sheâÄôs going to be fully engaged in practice or if sheâÄôs going to fully go for a ball from the first play,âÄù Cowles said. âÄúSheâÄôs always focused in and ready to go.âÄù

SheâÄôs the type that leads by example, Cowles said, but also a voice to guide the younger players.

âÄúI wouldnâÄôt say sheâÄôs the most vocal in the locker room, but when she does give her advice itâÄôs always very helpful,âÄù Cowles said.

One player that has benefited from GranquistâÄôs leadership is sophomore Tori Dixon, a middle blocker who was named to the All-Big Ten First Team on Nov. 29.

Since joining the Gophers last season, Dixon has grown close to Granquist off the court. She said Granquist is the kind of player that keeps the team in check.

âÄúSheâÄôs very competitive and she does add a lot of teamwork,âÄù Dixon said. âÄúIf she sees anyone drifting off, sheâÄôll quickly come at them. SheâÄôll be like, âÄòCome here, we need to stay together, we need to play together.âÄô I think thatâÄôs her biggest attribute.âÄù

With 1,683 career digs, Granquist will lead Minnesota into the 2011 NCAA Tournament with one last chance to reach her goal of winning a national championship.

ItâÄôs the kind of goal that Granquist plays for.

âÄúThereâÄôs no room for a delay or less urgency than the tournament demands,âÄù Granquist said. âÄúEvery ball has to be up, or pursued to the ultimate max.âÄù