SI College Athlete of the Year nominee: Oregon's Liz Brenner
Normally, Oregon volleyball coach Jim Moore would have long since left his office for home. It was just before Christmas in 2011 and right after Moore's team wrapped up a successful season that ended with an appearance in the NCAA tournament, when Ducks women's basketball coach Paul Westhead stood at Moore's office door with a delicate question: Could he borrow freshman outside hitter Liz Brenner to help his injury-depleted lineup? A few months later, Moore would be sitting in the same spot when Ducks softball coach Mike White came knocking with the same request.
Westhead and White weren't asking Moore to share some walk-on scrub, but rather his outside hitter who had ranked third on the team in kills, hitting and points. As a sophomore last fall, Brenner led the Ducks to a runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament and a school-record 30 wins, earning second-team All-America honors. Moore describes the 6-foot-1 Brenner's serve reception as "the best of anyone I've ever recruited."
A four-sport star in high school who earned Oregon Player of the Year awards in volleyball and basketball, won two state shot put titles and earned All-State distinction as a softball player at Portland's Jesuit High, Brenner decided to focus on volleyball in college because, she says, "I wanted to see how good I could get." But it didn't take much coaxing from Moore, Westhead, or White to convince her to become the Duck's first three-sport female athlete since Peg Rees lettered in volleyball, basketball, and softball from 1973 through '76. "I'm not a person who would enjoy sitting on the couch all day," says Brenner. "I'd much rather be going to practice, playing a game, than have nothing to do."
In Brenner's two seasons on the basketball team she averaged 6.7 points per game. As a backup catcher on last season's softball team, she helped Oregon advance to the College World Series. This spring, Brenner swapped softball for track, throwing the javelin and the shot put for the Ducks. Her four-sport efforts earned her the distinction of being the only collegian among the three finalists for the 2013 Sullivan Award, given to the nation's most outstanding amateur athlete.
While transitioning from volleyball's vertical leaps to basketball's full-court sprints is the most difficult physically, it's the spring season -- split between the demands of the track team and a slate of spring volleyball exhibitions -- that tests her logistically. Moore called a meeting with Brenner and her track coaches to guard against conflicting practice schedules, physical and emotional exhaustion and to make sure she was following the NCAA rule limiting athletic participation to 20 hours per week.
Brenner reports to volleyball from 8:30 to 11:15 a.m., then heads over to track practice from noon to 1:15 p.m. where her fellow javelin throwers initially looked at her strangely for skipping out on conditioning workouts. In the late afternoon, she attends classes, and has been able to maintain a 3.07 GPA in psychology.
Though sports and school leave little time for other interests, Brenner still manages to participate in O Heroes, a community outreach program facilitated by Oregon's athletics department. She occasionally reads to grade schoolers or coaches middle school volleyball practices. But everywhere she goes, in whatever she does, her message to the kids remains the same: Be prepared for opportunity to knock -- even if it's on one of your coach's doors.