Volleyball, Role Models Go Together at NDSU

Sept. 30, 2009, 1:44 p.m. (ET)

Story reprinted with permission by author Christopher Gabriel

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As we walked to the Bentson Bunker Fieldhouse to watch the North Dakota State women’s volleyball team take on Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI, or, Steelworkers Local 1138), we heard the powerful Bison Pep Band echoing off the buildings around us… and we were still well over a hundred yards from the Fieldhouse.

As the evening unfolded, the only thing more commanding inside this venerable old building would be the team wearing the green and gold.

NDSU dominated a very good IUPUI team 3-0 to remain undefeated in Summit League play. But this is about something far more significant than records and standings.

This was the first college or pro sporting event for my two young daughters. They’ve lived in Minneapolis but never attended a Gophers, Vikings, Twins, Wild or Timberwolves game… the girls’ pediatrician advised against taking them to a Wolves game. Something about keeping them on track with their wellness program.

My wife and I are seasoned pros when it comes to sporting events. We’re still season ticket holders in Neyland Stadium for Tennessee football and have probably attended more college football and basketball games around the country than some sportswriters.

North Dakota State University Fieldhouse. Photo courtesy of Christopher GabrielBut on this late September night in Fargo, in this Fieldhouse, on this campus, it would be a first for all of us. We would be seeing our first NDSU sporting event.

Across the board, we could not have aligned ourselves with a better team.

The moment we passed through the doors and entered the seating area, we were met by a table with students offering a chance to win a free Bison t-shirt through a scratch-off game. As is typical in our family, my wife won one. She regularly wins March Madness bracket contests, was once picked as the Fan of the Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago (which got her onto the field getting her picture placed up on the Diamondvision board while being given a large bag of gifts from the White Sox), had baseballs tossed to her in the stands during batting practice (while players would wave me off to throw to her)… the woman has a knack.

I’ve begged her to play Powerball. Where was I…

I know a lot of men who shrug off attending women’s sports as though it’s somehow beneath them. The thought process is simultaneously archaic and insulting to these student-athletes who perform with no less passion, dedication and a love of competition than their male counterparts.

Go watch Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols down in Knoxville, Tennessee. Make a stop in Chapel Hill and check out Anson Dorrance’s North Carolina soccer team. Come to Fargo to see Erich Hinterstocker’s NDSU volleyball team. After that, let’s sit down over a beverage and compare notes.

In every instance you’ll see great skill, speed and remarkable athleticism. And you’ll see something else, without fail, that you won’t see at men’s events: An infectious joy among themselves they’re more than happy to display during the game/match. But it doesn’t stop there.

North Dakota State Fieldhouse. Photo courtesy of Christopher GabrielThey have a bond with their fans that screams “we love your support, we’ll never take it for granted and we’ll show you how much we appreciate it at every possible moment.”

In what has become a colder, more distant athlete-fan dynamic (which some would argue mirrors society in general), it’s quite the opposite in women’s sports.

I’ve rarely seen this kind of “relationship” at men’s events. Having been to over 60 Division 1 venues for football and more than 30 in basketball, I’ve seen enough to convince me.

Athletes have great power to shape young people. Kids look up to them as heroes. Kids look up to them, period.

Some athletes don’t want that title; that responsibility. They view it as a burden. Almost to a fault, those athletes are men. Not all of them… but many.

Not so with women. This was once again on display at the end of the NDSU-IUPUI match.

Hustling down to the court with my wife and daughters, I was hoping my 6-year-old could meet Lauren McLaughlin. The junior outside hitter from Cary (Ill.) had a monster evening. Her performance was dominant. Coincidentally, Lauren’s day started with an in-studio appearance on my radio program. That she had such a great evening wasn’t lost on Caleigh. I’d point her out after her many kills only to hear my daughter yell “SHE WAS ON YOUR SHOW!”

Down on the court, the NDSU women were hugging, high-fiving, smiling and chatting with friends, family and fans both young and old. There wasn’s a single player that had left the court for the locker room that I could see.

We finally made it over to Lauren and this is where she displayed her greatest skills of the evening. With a huge smile and an extended hand, she greeted all of us as though we were family. She then kneeled down to chat with Caleigh, completely engaged and focused on her.

The moment wasn’t lost on my wife and I. And it wasn’t lost on Lauren. It all came so natural to her.

In what was no more than several minutes, she made a little girl’s evening by making her feel special. She made her feel important. Here she was, like all of her teammates, exhausted after their hard-earned victory and yet she put all that aside to simply have a little girl-time with our daughter.

Not surprisingly, Caleigh now wants to learn volleyball. She wants to be like Lauren.

And all of her teammates were doing much the same. No one turned their back on anyone. Smiles, greetings and thank yous were the order of the day.

These things aren’t teachable. And over the last 30-plus years, I’ve come to realize female athletes just get it. They have an innate understanding and sensitivity, to go along with their athletic prowess, that puts them in a different league than their male counterparts.

North Dakota State currently sits in first place in the Summit League. But for one little girl who doesn’t know standings and scores from VeggieTales, she’s already asking when she gets to see Lauren and her teammates again.