Kentucky senior setter Christine Hartmann was named Southeastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday for the second time in her career. But looking back on the season leading up to that award, it's a testament to her that she's been able to battle her way back to the top.
Hartmann came into the 2012 season knowing that she would be the starting setter come Aug. 24 against North Carolina in the season opener. She believed that she had earned that right based on her previous three seasons and last season's trip to the Sweet 16.
Everything started off as planned. Kentucky swept its opponents on the opening weekend of the season to win the Kentucky Classic, and UK was riding high on a three-match win streak. But losses to Louisville and Oregon thereafter had the Wildcats wavering.
The following weekend in Nebraska, Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner made the decision to shake up the lineup and give his talented freshman setter Morgan Bergren the reigns in favor of Hartmann, a senior.
"It's never easy (to bench) someone that's been a starter for us a couple of years," said Skinner. "(Hartmann)'s been an all-conference player. But as a staff, we're always going to make the best decisions for us to be successful on the court as a team."
And, at least initially, it looked like the move was a slam dunk.
Freshmen are often oblivious to how big moments can be, especially when their first start comes in Lincoln, Neb., home to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Huskers just happened to be the No. 1 team at the time of their matchup with the Wildcats. And it just happened to be Bergren's first start of her collegiate career.
With a freshman setter, the Wildcats took the No. 1 team in the country to four sets, and arguably should have won the match. For Bergren's efforts, she was named SEC Freshman of the Week.
Meanwhile, Hartmann was soul searching. With such high expectations coming into the season with dreams of leaving her imprint on the Kentucky volleyball program, Hartmann was left watching from the sidelines.
"Once I was benched and we were losing while I was sitting out, that was the hardest thing," said Hartmann. "I sat in Craig's office and told him that I felt helpless and felt like I couldn't do anything."
But this was hardly a new situation for the senior. Time after time throughout her career, she's battled for the starting position. And as it should be, she was never handed the starter tag. It would have to be earned.
The last two seasons saw Hartmann battle for playing time with Elizabeth Koberstein at the setter position. Each year, when the Wildcats went to the NCAA Tournament, it was Hartmann taking the floor for Kentucky. The end result was Koberstein transferring to Marquette and Hartmann looking like the indisputable heart of the team.
One glance at Hartmann, you can see why she's had to battle for her position. She doesn't quite pass the eye test for a high-major collegiate setter. Hartmann is listed at a very gracious 5-foot-11, but Skinner will tell you she's closer to 5-foot-10. Meanwhile, her teammate and competition in Bergren is every bit of 6-foot-1, a much more desirable size for the position.
Hartmann did not take the demotion easily. It was particularly hard for her given that it was her senior season. But thanks to the encouragement of her fellow seniors, Hartmann realized her responsibilities to her team were far from finished.
"Initially, it was hard to handle," said Hartmann. "Ashley Frazier and I are good friends, so I talked to her quite a bit so she could help push me through it and work harder in practice. I started talking more to Stephanie Klefot too, and she told me I was still a part of this team and to continue to work hard.
"So, it definitely helped having teammates that, even though they were on the other side of the net during practice, they were still going to push me as hard as they can."
So Hartmann pushed back.
From that point on, Hartmann made a decision that she would do all that she could to make her teammates better, even if it meant that she wasn't playing with the starters. A new dedication, an extra edge to prove herself to her teammate and coaches and a bit of humble pie transformed Hartmann into a better player.
Skinner took notice of his reinvigorated senior.
"There was a time where I was talking to Craig and he told me that I was having the best week of practice I've ever had even though I wasn't on the starting side," said Hartmann. "The way I was competing was what I needed to do, and so I told myself that that's what I was going to do every single day."
But where Hartmann may lack in certain physical attributes, she supplements her deficiencies with a plethora of intangibles: experience, leadership, heart, determination, hustle, communication, chemistry, and if her latest SEC Player of the Week award serves as validation, she's been resilient once more.
As a result, not only is Hartmann having more personal success, but more importantly, the Wildcats are back to their winning ways.
A five-set win at Texas A&M nearly a month ago helped Kentucky break a four-match losing streak. It could easily be argued as the turning point of their season. It also happened to be the first time Hartmann was reinserted into the UK starting lineup.
"When I came back as a starter against Texas A&M, we ended up winning in five sets, getting that feeling back and winning that match was great for us," said Hartmann. "It was the hump that we needed to get over at that point in the season. So it's been great to come back, and since then it's been pretty positive for us."
And she's right. Kentucky has taken off since her return. Since the Texas A&M match, UK is 6-1 including a sweep of Tennessee with the lone loss coming at Florida, a match Hartmann believes the Cats should have won after jumping out to a two-set lead.
The success of this team isn't all due to Hartmann, but she's certainly accounted for a large part of Kentucky's current cohesion. For Hartmann to be able to do her job to the best of her ability, she needs the assistance of her teammates, particularly the passers, to put the ball in good positions along the net to set up her attackers.
With the team apparently clicking on all cylinders, it sets up the perfect situation for Hartmann to be at the peak of her game as Kentucky hits its stride in the middle of the SEC schedule. With the naming of Hartmann as the SEC Player of the Week, it appears that a lot more people are taking notice just how good this Kentucky team is.
"We've only won a few awards this year," said Hartmann. "I don't know how many we had last year, but last year it seemed like we had more. So to be able to get in there and get that for our team again and have another person on our team receive that means a lot to us."