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A STORY BY JOHN TWORK 14

redbird magazine | august 2011


W

ith her cell phone in hand at the Bloomington, Ind., Hampton Inn after a volleyball match at the Indiana adidas Classic last season, Illinois State libero Jenny Menendez waited anxiously for a new text message. As the evening grew later, the Normal Community High School graduate anticipated a final update from the annual Normal versus Bloomington High School intercity football game, while Bloomington alum and Redbird setter Kristin Stauter sat quietly nearby. The noise of a vibrating phone broke the silence. A new message appeared in Menendez’s inbox. “Oh my gosh, we just beat you on a 44-yard field goal!” Menendez exclaimed as she read from the illuminated screen.

During fourth-year Redbird head coach Melissa Myers’ coaching career at ISU, the skipper has witnessed numerous studentathletes who became teammates after originating as high school foes. In fact, ISU’s Shannon McGlaughlin (Morton High School) and Angela Rego (Metamora High School) faced a similar challenge.

“You hope they get over it quickly since they’re obviously coming here because they want to play for Illinois State,” Myers said. “I think your high school alliances are important, z especially when e d l n o o ne h e c S you’re at that M h Jenny unity Hig point in your omm career. However, C l a Norm when you go on to college, you must adapt to an entirely new team.”

Stauter rolled her eyes in disgust. “That doesn’t even count,” Stauter grumbled. Normal’s Spencer Smith had just lifted the last second, game-winning field goal over the crossbar at ISU’s Hancock Stadium, securing a one-point victory over Bloomington. He also ensured bragging rights for Menendez. “We always hated when we lost to Normal,” Stauter recalled from her high school volleyball career. “It left a bitter feeling on your tongue, and for the next few days you just hated that feeling.” Stauter, who is a year older than Menendez, remembers competing in some heated matches against her former rival-turnedteammate. Ultimately, the two set aside their high school differences when they began playing together at Illinois State. Even with a sour taste from Bloomington’s heartbreaking football loss in her mouth, Stauter teamed up with Menendez to beat Arkansas State the next day at Indiana’s University Gym. “It’s not like it is ever personally bitter between us,” Menendez said. “But we still joke about certain things, especially if Bloomington and Normal are playing each other in football.”

Menendez and Stauter’s transition was aided by participation in the Illini Elite Volleyball Club. Stauter began playing for the Bloomington, Ill., club team as a sixth grader, while Menendez joined during her freshman year of high school.

basketball games at ISU when I was growing up,” Stauter said. “When I was little, I couldn’t say ‘Point, Illinois State!’ I thought it was, ‘Point, ell-uh-men-oh State!’ So I remember yelling, ‘Point, ell-uh-men-oh State!’ at the top of my lungs.” Not only did Stauter sound like an enthusiastic Redbird fan, but she looked the part too. For Halloween one year, Stauter’s mom made her an authentic ISU cheerleading uniform, complete with red and white pom-poms. While Stauter cheered from the stands, Menendez watched her volleyball heroes up-close and personal from the Redbird Arena floor. “I remember wearing an entire bright rainbow shiny outfit to help shag balls on the court during warm-ups back when (former Redbird star) Kendra Haselhorst was playing,” Menendez said. “After the game when I went to get my poster signed by the entire team, they were all commenting on my outfit. They said things like, ‘oh yeah, we remember you – and your outfit – from warm-ups.’ I’m sure I thought, ‘this is the coolest thing ever.’” As is usually the case with kids, “the coolest thing ever” frequently changes. For Menendez, it later became a “Point, Illinois State!” crewneck sweatshirt that she received for Christmas. Meanwhile, as Stauter’s fascination with Redbird volleyball continued to grow, she began venturing onto the floor after matches. Stauter loved watching the team autograph her glossy ISU volleyball poster with a squeaky Sharpie pen.

“Since we played club volleyball together, we already knew each other pretty well, and we were united through that,” Stauter said. “We already kind of knew how to be teammates.” Ultimately, the two local standouts simultaneously “I worked toward the remember same goal of playing being at NCAA Division the games and I volleyball, thinking, ‘oh my specifically for gosh, it must be so Illinois State. Krist Bloo i cool to play on that Even though ming n Staute t o court,’” Stauter said. “I Menendez and n Hig r h Sch would look up to the girls Stauter’s volleyball ool like they were idols or really career’s took divergent paths famous people. To get their through high school, they both learned to signatures was amazing. It’s love the game at the place where they later funny to think back to that when I’m signing fulfilled their dreams: Redbird Arena. “My family and I went to tons of volleyball and posters now. Sometimes it really does make a

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difference in those kids’ lives.” Years after the initial volleyball seed was planted, Menendez and Stauter have both blossomed into Redbird starters. Menendez, who was a three-year starter and two-year captain at Normal, has appeared in all 62 matches that the Redbirds have played during her first two seasons, leading the team last year with 551 digs. Stauter, who was a fouryear starter at Bloomington where she broke the BHS career set-assist record (2,284) and the career service points record (640), has become ISU’s primary setter, leading the Redbirds in set assists (1,230) last season. “With Jenny and Kristin both going to Redbird Athletics events as kids, they definitely understand the university and the community very well,” Myers said. “They’re also very skilled players who have both had impressive high school careers and are having great collegiate careers here at Illinois State.” Myers said Menendez and Stauter both play important roles, not only as athletes on the court, but also as community liaisons. “If a newcomer needs something or needs to go somewhere, Jenny and Kristen can direct them,” Myers said. “Certainly, if there is a question or a newcomer isn’t sure of something, there’s a comfort level that Jenny and Kristin can give, having lived in Bloomington-Normal their whole lives.” Of course, Menendez and Stauter can help with directions to Wal-Mart or shortcuts to the grocery store, but they are also happy to share more personal knowledge that they have acquired while growing up in the twin cities. “We’ll tell our teammates good places to get their hair cut or their nails done,” Stauter said. “Once they get here, they’re usually not sure where to go, so we’ll help them with that.” Along with guiding new student-athletes into the community, Menendez and Stauter’s connection

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redbird magazine | august 2011

to Bloomington-Normal also aids in bringing local volleyball fans to Redbird Arena. “They encourage the community to really rally around the group and the team,” Myers said. “Having local talent that local fans are used to watching and reading about in the paper as they see their careers really evolve and develop can lead to support of our entire group.”

Stauter begins her senior season at ISU with hopes of becoming a physical education teacher, while junior Menendez is planning on medical school after graduating in two

The process becomes years. cyclical. Local Illinois The two State student-athletes studentencourage aspiring athletes will local youngsters likely be forced to work toward a to move away from goal of eventually the twin cities for the becoming a Kristin Staute first time to pursue Redbird. Menendez r their future endeavors. and Stauter are not However, neither has only an important part of ruled out a move back to this cycle, but according to Myers, they Bloomington-Normal at serve as a key ingredient in the recipe for a some point in the future. successful team. “It’s important to have a good mix of studentathletes from different backgrounds.” Myers said. “As a coaching staff, we try to find the best local talent and mix that with excellent regional, national and international student-athletes. Our goal is to create a great environment with a diverse culture for the team to grow, learn and, ultimately, win together. We’re certainly fortunate to have two of the best local players on our team.” Even though life as an Illinois State volleyball player has become routine for Menendez and Stauter, they respect the program too much to take their experience for granted. Every once in a while, they remember what it was like, as little girls, to be in awe of Redbird volleyball.

“Before practice or warm-ups at the arena, it’s z e d n cool to just look e Men around.” Stauter Jenny said. “Sometimes I think, ‘wow, I’m on this court that I’ve always dreamed of playing on.’”

“I’ll be proud to be an ISU alumnae because of everything it stands for in the community,” Stauter said. “When we see volleyball alum come back, they are always proud to be Redbirds. They usually bring their kids and their families with them, and I think that’s a really cool experience. It will be fun to eventually do when I’m an alumnae.” Menendez is also anticipating her homecoming as a local student-athlete graduate. “One day we will come back, and I’ll probably bring my kids and I’ll tell them, ‘this is where I played and this is what I did when I was a volleyball player,’” Menendez said. “I might even show them some of the pictures from when I was in that rainbow outfit.” No matter where Menendez and Stauter end up after graduation, they will always be connected by Illinois State volleyball and divided by their high school allegiances. If nothing else, they will be brought together each fall to find out who has bragging rights based on the outcome of the Bloomington versus Normal Community football game.

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