Wittman maintains career dominance

Ashley Wittman is in her senior year and wants to leave behind a legacy.

Gophers senior outside hitter Ashley Wittman sets up for a spike against Purdue on Sunday at the Sports Pavilion.

Daily File Photo, Chelsea Gortmaker

Gophers senior outside hitter Ashley Wittman sets up for a spike against Purdue on Sunday at the Sports Pavilion.

David Nelson

Ashley Wittman has dominated the sport of volleyball since she stepped on the court as a fifth grader.

Over the course of her career, she’s garnered enough awards to measure up to the best college athletes.

In high school, Wittman won three state championships, earned a spot on the all-state roster three years in a row and earned the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year title as a senior.

In college, she has garnered All-Big Ten and All-America accolades.

Still, in her final season with the Gophers, the senior outside hitter wants to achieve more and leave behind a legacy greater than anything she’s done before.

Humble beginnings

Wittman’s career started as a hobby. Volleyball was her favorite sport growing up — she played with her friends in elementary school — but she didn’t take it seriously until high school.

“It was just fun to play in front of my family and to play with the group of people I played with,” Wittman said.

Still, her natural abilities even early in her career were undeniable — as a 12-year-old, she played alongside 14-year-olds. That was when Shakopee High School head coach Matt Busch first saw the future volleyball star.

Two years later, he became her coach.

“We had basically five hitters on that team, and arguably, she was in the top two at that age already,” Busch said of Wittman’s freshman season. “What was more impressive was that she was a consistent player. … She was very intuitive. She didn’t make a lot of mistakes.”

Her success as a freshman rolled over into her sophomore year — the same time Shakopee’s run of three straight state championships began.

Wittman became a prominent name across volleyball recruiting boards, but her college choice came down to Minnesota or Wisconsin.

“She’s a very driven, very goal-oriented person, and that’s what shot her up the ranks at a very quick pace, I would say,” Busch said.

Wittman won Gatorade Minnesota Volleyball Player of the Year her junior and senior years.

She committed to the Gophers before the start of her senior year.

And with the recruiting process out of the way, Wittman put together an outstanding final year. She had 569 kills, 294 digs, 50 blocks, 26 service aces and posted a .662 hitting percentage.

Wittman capped her career with a Gatorade National High School Player of the Year award, becoming one of only three Minnesotans to receive the honor.

“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Busch said of having Wittman on his squad. “That just doesn’t happen again.”

Off to college

Heading into college, there was added pressure to perform, Wittman said.

“I did do so many great things in high school, and people built me up to be this great volleyball player,” she said. “I wanted to fulfill that thought, and I didn’t want to screw up and make anyone doubt me.”

Fortunately for both Wittman and Minnesota, that didn’t happen.

As a freshman, she accumulated 442 kills and 400 digs — one of the best performances ever by a Gophers freshman. She earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week three times that season, the second-most since the award’s inception in 2009.

The Gophers began a new era after the 2010 departure of former head coach Mike Hebert, who recruited Wittman. Laura Bush became interim head coach before moving to associate head coach when current head coach Hugh McCutcheon took over.

Wittman said the multiple coaches in a short span of time didn’t have a negative effect on her — she just “went with it.”

Still, she said she was happy to have at least two years with former U.S. Olympic coach McCutcheon. It’s a bond McCutcheon has also enjoyed.

“It’s a bummer she’s a senior. I think we’re just starting to get going here,” he said.

“It would be nice to have a couple more years.”

Wittman said she plans to play professionally for the next “three to four years” and then pursue a career in coaching.

Though Wittman’s career with the Gophers will come to an end soon, she said she’s ready for the next stage in her life.

“I’m at the point where I’ve had a great four years, and I want to come out with a bang this year,” she said. “It’s kind of bittersweet, but I’m excited for what’s next.”