For many in their final year of high school, second semester is like a dream come true. It is a time when high schoolers across the country secure collegiate enrollment and pursue semester-long vacations filled with skipped classes, blown-off homework and senior prom.
But freshman Tori Blake threw that all away without a second thought by graduating high school a semester early to join the Wisconsin volleyball team.
“It’s been like a dream come true,” Blake said. “High school was great, but I was kind of over it to begin with … It was the best thing that had ever happened to me. So few people are able to do that. I was so happy that I was able to.”
Instead of walking with the Midland High School Class of 2013 at graduation and gearing up for senior skip day, Blake has been playing and practicing as a full-fledged student-athlete with the UW volleyball team since January. Blake was named to the 2013 Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 list, along with future Badger Lauren Carlini and was a two-time all-conference and all-region selection in her home state of Michigan.
Even as a 17-year-old heading into the semester, the 6-foot-3 middle blocker had no regrets about leaving high school early. She was thrilled to join her teammates and begin learning about the UW volleyball system.
“Coming here early, you get ahead on classes, you get to be with the team,” Blake said. “That’s the biggest thing, being with the team, being with your family that you’re going to have for the next four years, getting to know the coaching staff, seeing how everything works. It’s worth it.”
Head coach Kelly Sheffield said in his past experience, players who graduate early to play with their college teams have a difficult time adjusting to life away from home. However, he said Blake has been a different story.
“This kid isn’t going through any of that stuff as far as I can tell,” Sheffield said. “This Disney World ride for her has been for four months.”
Another important transition Blake has made was her shift from basketball to volleyball. Growing up in a basketball-crazed home, it was a shock to her parents when Blake decided during her sophomore year of high school that after eight years of basketball, she would be giving up the sport to pursue volleyball.
Blake’s sophomore year was also the same year she said she started “taking [volleyball] seriously,” and the same year that Blake verbally committed to playing volleyball at Wisconsin.
Blake began travelling two hours away by car to Grand Rapids, Mich., to train at the club level and improve her skills. While Blake’s fall season consisted of playing with the Midland High School Chemics, her springs turned into long car rides, weekends at tournaments and long days training, but she said her newfound love of volleyball made the time commitment irrelevant.
Sheffield said she has been able to transition seamlessly into volleyball because of her athleticism. During her sophomore year, Blake took seventh in the state in Division I with a high jump of five feet, four inches. Sheffield said that Blake is a long way from honing her volleyball skills, but her willingness to work hard is an invaluable asset.
“The competitiveness, the determination, the drive to get better and to be great is oozing out of every one of her pores,” Sheffield said. “She really, really wants to be good. I would put her competitive drive up there with probably anyone on this team right now. She’s going to be really, really good. It’s going to take some time.”
Fellow middle blocker and junior Dominique Thompson said Blake has already vastly improved her attacks on offense as well as her on-court confidence.
Thompson also said that all of the players have supported Blake from the start and have respected her for her consistent work ethic. Thompson said that throughout the first weeks of the semester, all of the players were texting Blake to help her find her way around campus.
“We’ve all just kind of taken her under our wing as a responsibility to let her know where she needs to be,” Thompson said.
Blake praised her teammates for the support they have given her. She said she expected to be looked down upon as a freshman, but has been fully accepted as part of the Wisconsin volleyball family.
Even as a bona fide member of the UW volleyball clan, Blake said she is still trying to learn from the veterans of the team.
“I’m kind of following in a sense,” Blake said. “I’m trying to find my spot on the team at the same time. … It’s great though because they push me. Coach pushes me. I don’t feel like anyone’s letting up the slack.”