On a typical Monday and Wednesday morning at the Edmunds Center, the Stetson volleyball team runs through an early two-and-a-half hour practice, even if the Hatters played a match the night before.
As the gym emptied out after Wednesday’s session, senior libero Monique Russell asked to stay behind to work on her defense. With assistant coach Meghan Bryant spiking balls Russell’s way and head coach Tim Loesch providing a block at the net, Russell played ball after ball to help sharpen her reflexes and improve her passing technique.
“She always wants to improve, and that’s something I like about her,” Loesch said. “She is a perfectionist, like me. She wants to dig every spike and pass every serve. That’s a good thing, but she is also hard on herself, too. She wants to do better and is never satisfied.”
That internal desire is a primary reason why, as Stetson prepares to host USC Upstate and ETSU this weekend, Russell finds herself on the verge of breaking the Stetson all-time record for digs. With 1,263 digs to her credit, the Hatter senior is just 25 away from breaking Melissa Roy’s mark of 1,287, which has stood since 1997. What's more impressive is Roy’s total came in the side-out scoring era, where the potential existed for longer matches and higher individual statistics. Russell’s total has come in the rally scoring era, which the NCAA adopted back in 2000.
“I try not to think about the record, but it’s hard when I have my dad texting me after a match to tell me ‘I’m 40 away’ or something like that,” Russell said. “I think it would be nice to break it, but I would trade that in for wins for the rest of the season.”
Since Russell’s first collegiate match back at the start of the 2009 season, she has competed in all 101 of the Hatters’ matches without missing a single one. That’s quite an accomplishment considering diving after 30 balls a match and countless more during practice often leaves the defensive specialist with her share of aches and pains.
“I always have bruises, and I have knee problems, but I try and do preventable stuff in the training room so I don’t have to miss any games,” Russell said. “I tried to avoid going in for treatment as a freshman and sophomore, but now that I am older I feel like I have to go.”
Born and raised in Phoenix, Ariz., Russell started playing volleyball back in grade school, when everyone played every position and her mom was her coach.
“That was a lot of fun,” Russell said.
From there, she was hooked on the sport. She quickly realized what position she wanted to play.
“I’ve never really been a hitter, I’ve always played libero,” Russell said. “I just loved diving around the floor and picking up the attackers’ hard hits. That was the fun part for me.”
Volleyball wasn’t the only sport Russell competed in growing up; she also played basketball and softball. But the desert heat of Arizona made softball less desirable and it became pretty clear to Russell that volleyball was her true passion.
“I just love volleyball. I love the sport, I love everything about it,” Russell said. “It’s just a fun game. I think it’s more about mental toughness and that’s what I really enjoy. Volleyball is definitely a team sport. I can’t do anything without the help of my teammates.”
Russell attended St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, where her first coach, Melinda Espinoza, said she knew ‘Moe’ was special from the beginning.
“Moe worked hard, wanting to be the best and to be on the court at all times,” Espinoza said. “She was quick and her passing was almost always perfect. When it was time for a water break, she rarely took a break. She would often say ‘give me another one coach’ or ‘hey, bump with me’. She would even go to the racquetball courts and have her mom hit balls at her just to get more digging practice.”
Part of a talented freshman class that played varsity for four years, Russell helped take St. Mary’s to the Arizona state playoffs in 2005 and 2006. She earned first team all-region honors in 2007 and 2008. She also helped the Arizona Juniors Volleyball Club win two United States Volleyball Association Arizona Open region titles.
As a senior at St. Mary’s, Russell played for coach Jackie Scaduzio, who also recognized Russell’s talent and love of the sport.
“Monique was always very focused about her goals to play college volleyball,” Scaduzio said. “She was an extremely consistent libero for our program. She really opened the door to volleyball club players here at Saint Mary’s by being a role model of success. I am not surprised that she is on her way to break the digs record at Stetson.”
The summer prior to her senior year, Russell traveled to Florida to visit her aunt and to attend a Stetson volleyball camp. She fell in love with the campus and verbally committed to then Stetson coach Cheryl Carlson.
“She and Maddie (Madison Anderson) both came to camp that year and really liked Stetson a lot,” Carlson said. “We brought them back for official visits so they could meet the rest of the team, and they both decided to come here to school.”
Even though Russell moved more than 2,000 miles away from where she grew up, she immediately felt right at home at Stetson.
“I just love this school,” Russell said. “Coming from a small private school like St. Mary’s, I love knowing everyone when I walk around campus, and getting one-on-one time with my professors. They know my name and I see them around campus all the time. I say hello to everyone. I just feel like this is a family here.”
That family atmosphere throughout campus applies to the volleyball team at an even deeper level. Now in her fourth season with the Hatters, Russell says the friendships she has made with her Hatter teammates will last her a lifetime.
“I enjoy all the relationships I’ve made since I’ve been a freshman, I still have girls that I keep in contact with, and I know that I’ll be keeping in contact with all these girls here. I just really enjoy all the cool people I’ve met and the fact that we are all from all over the country. I will be really excited to keep these friendships going.”
Russell says after graduation she plans on attending graduate school and working towards a career in Art Therapy, a way for children to convey their emotions from a creative standpoint. But, before graduation and career plans are solidified, Russell’s focus is on the rest of the season and getting the Hatters back on the winning track.
“I believe a lot in this team. I feel like we have a lot of talent, and I know we can get the job done. I think our time is coming. We do have a few things to figure out, but I have a lot of faith in this team and I know a lot of wins are going to come our way.”