HIBBING — When Sophie Howard left Hibbing High School, she never thought she’d be playing volleyball again.
The former Bluejacket attended Bemdiji State University, and while roaming around campus one day, she saw a flyer for a club volleyball team.
Howard immediately joined the team to keep her volleyball skills sharp.
It’s a good thing she did that.
Howard would transfer back to Hibbing Community College last spring, and those skills came in handy when she joined the Cardinals’ program this season.
“I wasn’t going to play, then I played on a club team there for that one semester,” Howard said. “I found out about it on campus. They had little booths that informed you about club teams and the like.
“It was a women’s traveling team, so we would go to Wisconsin and around Minnesota to play. We played in three tournaments in the fall. I played every set. That was fun.”
According to Hibbing coach Kasey Palmer, Howard was the first to make contact with the first-year coach.
“She told me she was coming back, and that she was looking to play volleyball,” Palmer said. “She wanted to see if we had tryouts or anything like that to see if she could join, but I didn’t know what to expect from her.
“I asked her how much she had played, and what position she played. She said she played all-around, so she would be open to anything. With that, you can’t say no to a player who’s willing to play any position to get out on the court.”
For one reason or another, Howard decided to move home and register for the nursing program at HCC. That’s when she decided to play competitive volleyball again.
When she first arrived at camp, Palmer, who had never seen Howard play, was pleasantly surprised by her new recruit.
“First, I noticed that she’s tall,” Palmer said. “It was nice to walk into a gym and say, ‘We actually have some height.’ From my background, I wasn’t used to that in Floodwood. She was tall, and she hits well from the outside.
“She was willing to step in and take some reps as a setter, if needed. We didn’t know quite what we were going to do for a setter, so she was willing to do that, too. She got a few setting reps.”
Howard didn’t miss a beat at practice. Not only did she have that club-tournament experience, but she also played summer sand volleyball, which kept her skills sharp.
“I’d say it helped me keep my skills, and it made me better,” Howard said. “I did lose it for a little bit, but that helped me maintain my skills. I was able to come back and do that here again.
“Playing in the sand, it’s a lot harder to move around in the sand vs. on the court. It makes you go faster because you’re trying to move faster in the sand. It’s makes you quicker on your feet.”
Those experiences, plus the fact that Howard played Junior Olympic volleyball, was enough preparation for what was about to experience in MCAC volleyball.
“Sophie was used to seeing some of the faster-paced offenses,” Palmer said. “She knew what to expect, and how to adapt to play against that.”
Howard didn’t see many differences in the way the game was played.
“I don’t think it’s a lot quicker, but I like it that way,” Howard said. “I’ve always liked having the faster speeds and stuff vs. what it was in high school. It’s more fun for me, too. You get a little more freedom.
“You meet new people. That was the biggest part for me. These girls are my best friends.”
According to Palmer, Howard has adjusted quite well. Her hitting has improved, plus, she’s near the top of the team leaders in serving and digs.
“She’s done well,” Palmer said. “The main thing Sophie has worked on is being able to be more strategic when she swings. She’s worked on rolling when she needs to when the set isn’t perfectly there. She doesn’t swing hard all of the time. She works on her placement.
“Over the past week, that has helped her hitting. She gets quite a few looks on the outside. Her (kill percentage) keeps going up because she’s strategically learning how to do it. It’s not always about swinging hard, but it’s more about placement. That’s working for her.”
Hitting aside, Howard takes more pride in her digs. She had 20 of them in a contest against Mesabi Range earlier this season.
“I was proud of that, especially with the big right-side hitter they have,” Howard said. “I feel proud to be able to play all-around, and get the ups that I need to get. At the club level, that’s when I first started realizing that.
“When we started practice in August, I noticed that. I wanted to perfect my back row. I like being aggressive back there and getting stuff up when I need to. I like being that multidimensional player, where I can do everything. That’s how I was in high school, too. I went in wherever I was needed. It’s nice to be useful.”