Life-long friend teaches Martin about appreciation

Ben Goessling

When Minnesota’s eighth-ranked volleyball team closes out a victory, sophomore outside hitter Erin Martin usually begins the celebration in midair.

After the last Gophers point hits the floor, Martin can immediately be seen jumping around, fists clenched, mouth agape, screaming to no one in particular.

It’s almost as though she’s never been part of a win before.

But in actuality, it’s because she knows all too well she might never be part of one again.

The last six years of Martin’s life have been shaped by the realization her career could end at any time, a lesson she learned first-hand from her best friend.

Billy Warren, Martin’s childhood companion in their hometown of Ames, Iowa, was headed toward a promising high school and college baseball career when he was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at age 13.

“He was a stud baseball player,” Martin said. “He played on all the Amateur Athletic Union teams, and everybody was sure he was going to be a star in high school and college.”

Warren, a sophomore at Iowa State, played baseball through his sophomore year of high school. But arthritis in his knees and legs initially reduced him to a pinch hitter. If Warren got on base, his team would bring in a pinch runner.

Later on, the disease got so bad Warren couldn’t even make it to first base.

“I didn’t think it would affect me that much until eighth grade,” Warren said. “Everybody on my junior high team made the high school team a year early, and I was the only one cut.

“I played through my freshman and sophomore years, but it just hurt so much it took away the fun.”

Warren took on the role of supporter, remaining a coach on the baseball team at his teammates’ request and coming to as many of Martin’s volleyball matches and basketball games as possible.

And before Martin left for college, it was Warren who delivered the words which would become her credo at Minnesota.

“I remember him saying he asked God why he had to get this disease, why his career had to end,” Martin said. “But then he said I can’t take anything for granted and how I have to enjoy every minute of (my career).”

Last year, though, Martin didn’t have much to enjoy.

The top-25 national recruit found the going rough in college, hitting just .174 last season and failing to live up to the lofty expectations placed on her.

“I asked myself, ‘Why would they waste their time recruiting me?’ ” she said.

Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said Martin’s struggles were compounded by her difficulty in controlling her fiery personality.

“She was the kind that sulked for hours last year,” Hebert said. “That roller-coaster is difficult for everybody, and she needed to learn to get a foothold on her emotions.”

Martin knew it, too.

“I felt something had to change,” she said. “I struggled with that range of emotions, but I turned it around in the summer.”

Martin developed a jump serve and improved her blocking immensely.

When starting middle blocker Maggie Freiborg went down with a season-ending ACL injury Aug. 23, Hebert chose Martin to fill the critical position.

Since moving back to outside hitter, the 19-year-old has emerged as the Gophers’ second option offensively behind opposite hitter Cassie Busse. Martin ranks 10th in the Big Ten with 3.69 kills per game.

Additionally, she is third in the conference in service aces and unofficially holds the team record with a 57 mph serve.

“Last spring, Erin wouldn’t have listed me as one of her favorite people,” Hebert said. “But I asked her to toe the line, and she’s completely changed her game. She’s one of the best players in the conference.”

And for Martin, sharing her success with Warren is the best part.

Warren drove more than 130 miles from Ames to Iowa City to see Minnesota play Iowa last Wednesday. After Martin pounded a career-high 25 kills in a 3-1 Gophers victory, she lingered for 20 minutes on the court, reveling in her triumph with her best friend and inspiration.

“Everybody wishes for the chance to play sports in college,” Warren said. “I see all the stuff that’s given to her and how (Minnesota) provides everything for her, and it’s great to see one of my best friends get that chance.”