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October 10, 2011

Playing with Power

By: Marc Mullen

Cara Baarendse got involved with volleyball because of her older sister, and now the middle blocker is on her way to a record-setting career at Tech

For anyone who has brothers or sisters in close proximity in age, the script – regardless if you are the older or the younger – is pretty much the same. For the older sibling, there really is never any alone time because, even early on, the younger one always wants to do the same thing, despite limitations in size, strength, dexterity, etc.

As time goes on, the scenario continues leading up through high school, working the same jobs or playing the same sports, and sometimes that eventually leads to the same college choice. That might explain the reason there are so many brother combinations that have played for head coach Frank Beamer over the years on the football team – there are seven on this year’s team alone.

And, this was, and still could be, the same deal for current junior volleyball player Cara Baarendse – except for one decision she made during the spring of her junior year when she decided to take her talents to Virginia Tech.

“I started playing volleyball in third grade, and I was influenced by my sister [Jessica], who’s two years older than me,” Baarendse said. “I would always go to her volleyball games and just wanted to play, too.

“It was really pretty cool. When I was a freshman, I got to play varsity with my sister when she was a junior. My parents got to enjoy watching both my sister and I play together for two years.”

After graduating from William Mason High School in Mason, Ohio, a relative suburb of Cincinnati, in 2007, Jessica attended Miami University in Miami, Ohio, which was just a 35-mile drive from the Baarendse home in Mason.

A year later, Cara had to make her decision on her postgraduate destination. For the young lady who grew up in western Ohio her whole life, and with her sister already there – though she wasn’t playing volleyball for the RedHawks – Cara’s obvious choice seemed to be Miami.

“It [her decision] was actually a super-fast decision. I only went on one other visit besides Tech, and that was Miami of Ohio and I was pretty confident that I was going to go to Miami because it was close to home and my sister went there,” Baarendse said. “But then when I went on my visit here, I just saw the campus and fell in love with everything about Tech, and that changed my mind. I committed two weeks later.”

Miami’s loss was certainly the Hokies gain, as Baarendse has been nothing but tremendous for the Hokies since her arrival on campus in 2009. In her first season, all she did was start in 27 of 31 matches, set a Tech freshman hitting percentage record of .354 and notch 280 kills, the seventh most ever by a rookie at the school. She added 64 block assists and 321 total points.

“I was actually super surprised with how my freshman year went,” Baarendse said. “I came in here thinking, ‘The ACC!’ I was just expecting to sit on the bench and not have as much of an impact as I did.

“I just played my hardest in practice. I knew that some of the girls had many more years of experience in college than I did, so I really worked hard, trying to show that there was no real difference between us.”

She followed that freshman year with a 2010 season that included 385 kills, a .376 hitting percentage, 121 digs and 422 total points. She helped the Hokies to the NCAA Championships for the first time in school history and was showered with numerous postseason honors, which included first-team All-ACC, All-ACC Academic, and American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) All-East Region and AVCA All-American honorable mention – Tech’s third ever player to be honored.

“The NCAAs were incredible. It was the first time in program’s history going there, so that was great being a part of that,” Baarendse said. “The first game was just an incredible experience, and then walking into Penn State’s gym and getting to play against the No. 1 team, that was really fun.

“I was really shocked by that [the All-America selection]. I wasn’t really expecting that at all. I thought that upperclassmen usually get that, so that was such a great surprise.”

Earning the accolades helped Baarendse get noticed by Bring It Promotions, which sponsored a USA Development Team [in conjunction with USA Volleyball] that went to China during June to play in the China-USA Challenge Invitational Tournament in Beijing and Weifang/Shandong.

Two teams of 12 women each traveled halfway around the globe to take part in the event, which actually started June 7 in Anaheim, Calif. The group departed for China on June 9 and returned to the states on the 20th.

Baarendse played on the “Red” team, which included players from Oregon, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Northwestern and even a teammate from Virginia Tech in Erin Leaser.

“It was great to be able to go with Erin, because going to foreign country, it was nice to have someone there that I knew and was friends with,” Baarendse said. “For five days, we were in Shouguang, which was about six hours away from Beijing. Then the last part of our trip was in Beijing. It was such a cool experience getting to play over there.

“We played teams from China, so there were three Chinese teams in Weifang and then three other teams in Beijing that we played. And Stanford was also there, but because of NCAA rules, we weren’t able to play them.

“I think my favorite part of the trip was site seeing. Being able to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Wall, was awesome and just being able to experience the culture. We went to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and we got to go shopping and to the market places. And we learned a couple phrases that we used a lot – we learned to say ‘Hello’ which is ‘Nee Hao,’ and ‘Thank you’ is ‘She-eh, She-eh’ – but that’s about it.”

One other thing that Baarendse did in China, which she hadn’t done since coming to Tech, was play middle blocker. For her first two seasons, she was an outside hitter, essentially playing “Robin” to the Hokies’ “Batman” at the time, Felicia Willoughby.

Willoughby was a three-time AVCA All-American and a three-time first-team All-ACC selection. She finished her career first at the school in hitting percentage (.331), block assists (454) and total blocks (552), while finishing fifth in kills (1,289) and solo blocks (98).

“I started my first two years at Tech as a right-side hitter, but my whole life, I played middle, so coming into college, they changed me from a middle blocker to a right-side hitter. So that was a big adjustment,” Baarendse said. “But this past summer, when I was in China, I actually played middle there for the first time in two years, so that was an experience. Then the first two tournaments, I started playing middle here, so I kind of took on Felicia’s role as to what she did.”

Taking on Felicia’s role for the 2011 season hasn’t slowed Baarendse in the stat column. She is well on her way to her personal goal of reaching 1,000 kills and could, in fact, reach that by the end of the year.

Also, her hitting percentage (as of Oct. 3) was .361, 30 points higher than Willoughby’s was when she ended her career as the school record holder. However, she certainly has seen the effects on the other side of the court.

“It’s definitely getting difficult to play because now I am the target for opponents,” she said of the two changes. “I am facing more double blocks because before, when I was a freshman, they weren’t expecting me to get set. But now, people are focusing in on me more as a player, and even though it’s more of a challenge, I like it.”

She has also seen the effect of the Hokies’ success in the stands.

“Our fans have been growing [in numbers]. I remember my freshman year, the fans were more older and younger, little kids,” she said. “But now we are getting some loyal fans – students. We have this fan section that actually made shirts, and they’ve named themselves the ‘Seventh Man.’ And they’re painting their bodies and making signs, and it’s really awesome.”

However, eventually, her volleyball career will come to an end, which brings us back to her sister, Jessica. After earning a degree in education from Miami, she took a teaching position at Mercer Elementary School in Cincinnati.

And what are Cara’s thoughts of her post-player profession?

“It’s hard to say right now, but eventually I would like to go back to school and get my master’s and become an elementary education teacher or something working with kids,” she said. “I love them.”

She may try to get her a job a little farther south, as she mentioned she is particularly fond of the Carolinas. Regardless, she’ll be following in her sister’s footsteps once again, and she may continue to do so.

After all, it’s worked out well for her so far.

More Insight into Cara

On her most embarrassing moment – “I’m pretty clumsy, so I do trip a lot. One time at a tournament, a scout that I had been talking to previously was there, and as I was saying ‘Hi’ to her, I ran right into the volleyball pole.”

On her relationship with her younger brother – “My sister and I used to dress him up all the time as a girl. But he’s a typical boy. He loves sports and loves Virginia Tech. It’s his dream to be on the basketball team here when he gets older.”

On her guilty pleasure – “I have the biggest sweet tooth ever, and my teammates will make fun of me for it. I’m a gum chewer, and before a game, some girls will go to Starbucks, but I like to make a candy-bar run, just to get some sugar in me before the games. I love chocolate, a sour and sweet candy, just anything.”

On her free time – “My roommates [Jen Wiker and Jess Wellman] and I enjoy playing the Wii, Mario Kart. And we also go shopping on Sundays for clothes, which is a really bad habit because we just spend money. I also like playing beach volleyball around campus.”

On social media – “I think you have to be smart with what you post, especially as an athlete because your fans and the people who look up to you follow you. I remember when I was little and going to college sporting events and thinking, ‘Wow, these athletes are amazing’ and now I am one of those athletes.”

On her size (she is 6-foot-1) – “I used to hate being tall when I was younger just because everyone else was shorter. I would get so mad and ask my mom, ‘Why do I have to be so tall?’ But now I like it. It doesn’t even bother me. I don’t even feel tall anymore being around all the college athletes. I feel average size.”