Three years after she arrived from Kansas City onto a campus so green and unfamiliar, Gophers senior Alexis Hart is fast approaching these final weeks when she will say goodbye to her teammates, her collegiate career and an old friend.
“I know the bus system like the back of my hand now,” she said.
She has learned much in four seasons as an outside hitter who has transformed herself from gifted athlete to savvy senior, heading into Thursday’s home match against Wisconsin, a battle of Big Ten co-leaders.
“It’s just crazy how time has gone,” Hart said. “It’s just crazy how it seems last year was 2016, and I was an incoming freshman and now it’s about to be 2020.”
She is taking her final four class credits this fall and next month will graduate early with a business marketing degree she’ll use after she pursues a professional volleyball career overseas this winter.
Before she goes, she’s on a tear that carries her into the fifth-ranked Gophers’ final six matches and the NCAA tournament. Hart has hit .355 and has 84 kills (3.50 per set) in the past six matches when both she and her team adjusted to a new system with two new setters while injured senior Kylie Miller remains out.
“[Hart] has found some really nice rhythm the last few weeks,” Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “We’ve changed setters and now you’ve to get some new connection between hitters and setters. Obviously, she’s doing a nice job of it.”
Hart’s collegiate career has been lessons learned in life and athletics. Tuesday was the third anniversary of her grandfather’s death. Richard Robinson helped raise her and guided her toward attending Minnesota. His death rocked her freshman season, when she learned to lean on older teammates.
“They showed me that’s the way of life and you deal with it,” Hart said Tuesday. “I have a lot of pictures of him in my room. I woke up this morning, saw them, smiled and I just went on about my day.”
Now she is a senior upon whom younger teammates can lean. At 6-feet tall, Hart played basketball, was a long- and triple-jumper in track and a volleyball middle blocker when McCutcheon first saw her play for her club team while in high school.
“She’s tall, but she’s not that tall,” McCutcheon said.
So he recruited her and converted her to an outside hitter.
“I actually feel like I’m tall,” Hart said, “but when I go against all the other girls, I’m pretty short for an outside.”
Maybe not exactly short, but certainly smarter than she was that summer’s day she arrived on campus. McCutcheon praises Hart for “doing a wonderful job” developing range as a hitter.
“I can’t just be Bounce Nation because Bounce Nation is going to be Block Nation at this level sometimes,” Hart said. “When I got here, I just wanted to hit the ball. I realized in college volleyball you have to do more than just hit the ball. I’m blessed Hugh was there to help me and get me from always trying to bounce the ball to being smart.”
It took time during these years when Hart also took 18 credits one fall so she could graduate early. She also did a month’s program abroad last spring in northeastern England, studying the culture and the region’s Geordie dialect in what she called a “once in a lifetime” experience.
“When you’re 18 or 19, you’re trying to figure out how life and death and all the rest of it works,” McCutcheon said. “To her credit, she did a phenomenal job. Here she is today, having a pretty good career. You don’t want to blink, that’s for sure. It goes by fast, no question.”