Stark is Cards’ spark
Read how NDSU-bound libero Abby Stark leads Willmar volleyball team
WILLMAR — Shortly after the Willmar volleyball team completed an impressive home sweep over defending Central Lakes Conference champion Sartell on Monday, head coach Traci Grussing had some news for one of her star players.
Junior starting setter Lydia Larson would miss the next match the following night at St. Cloud Tech to go on a college visit. Grussing informed senior libero Abby Stark that she would start in Larson’s place.
Stark began her career with the Cardinals as a setter before finding a home as a libero. Despite not having a moment of practice to work out some of the kinks, Stark jumped at the opportunity.
“Setting has always been my passion,” Stark said. “When I was a little short girl, I didn’t have any hopes of being a college setter ‘cause I was shorter than most. But I have never (given) up my love for setting. When she told me that I was setting Monday night, I was super excited for it.”
For Stark, it was like riding a bike all over again. Leading her team with 27 assists, seven digs and six of the team’s 12 ace serves, the senior helped Willmar capture a clean sweep over Tech. Through three matches this season, the Cardinals haven’t dropped a single set.
Tuesday night was just another chapter in Stark’s impressive career. Coming off a junior season where she led the team in digs (388) and ace serves (41), she’s a three-time All-Central Lakes Conference selection. She also holds the record for digs in a season and career digs.
“Her strength has always been that she can just do everything,” Grussing said of Stark. “She’s a good hitter. She’s gotten a lot taller since she started on varsity. She’s a good setter. She’s a good server. She just can do whatever we need her to do.”
As she’s grown into her 5-foot-9 frame, Stark is able to cover a lot of ground on the floor and take balls high above her head. She’s mixed her physical gifts with a strong knowledge of the game.
However, behind all of the production, Stark exhibits a force of personality on a nightly basis. Almost from the time she first stepped on the Willmar gym floor, her personality has allowed her to command the action and be a leader.
Stark’s playing days began in elementary school while attending Community Christian School in Willmar. With the encouragement of her CCS coaches to take volleyball more seriously, Stark sat down with her parents to discuss her next step. They decided that she’d transfer to Willmar Middle School in hopes of getting her name out there.
As a seventh grader, Stark attended the first day of varsity tryouts at Willmar High School.
“I just remember her walking into the gym,” Grussing said. “We usually have a good idea who is going to try out in middle school. She went to CCS through sixth grade, so we didn’t know who she was, but she walked in through the gym to try out. The coaches were like, ‘Who is she?’ because seventh graders didn’t try out. Then we saw her play and that changed our minds really quickly.”
Stark didn’t make the varsity team that season, but having the confidence to give it a shot is a glance — even at an early age — at her competitive drive.
“I am the most competitive person I know. I think my competitiveness is definitely something I’ve always had,” Stark said. “It gets to the point where I want to be the best all the time, I want to make people the best around me. ... It’s just been something that I was born with and I don’t know why or how, but if you ask anyone in the gym, they would probably say to me 95 percent of the time.”
One year after that first impression, Stark made the varsity team as an eighth grader during the 2016 season. She served as a back-up setter to Esther Grussing, who is currently playing volleyball at Division I Ball State University.
The next season, Stark filled a void as the team’s starting libero. Looking back, she says she was thankful for her time on the bench. She got to learn under the wings of senior libero Addie Erickson and senior defensive specialist Staci Banks and credited them for their guidance.
Now, it was her time to see what she could do.
“Coming into my freshman year and during that club season in eighth grade, I was really focused and said, ‘OK, this is my job now,’” Stark said. “My job is to play defense. My job is to be a good serve-receiver and put up good second balls. ... Honestly, it was a super easy transition I would say.”
Stark filled the role nicely and helped Willmar make it to the Section 8AAA championship match. The Cardinals fell to Moorhead in five sets, but finished the season with a strong 25-5 record.
That season featured five seniors, but there was a little freshman that wasn’t afraid to share her voice in practice.
“We were doing a drill. We had to get a certain amount of digs, keep the ball in the air and reach a goal,” Grussing recalls. “The varsity was struggling to do it. (Stark) was a freshman and she called everybody in and kind of came up with a plan on how they could accomplish it, and then they did it. She’s always been a really good leader and understands the game really well.”
As the years have progressed, Stark continues to embrace her leadership role.
On any given night, she can be seen talking out instructions and directing traffic during play.
“I’ve always been a super vocal player,” she said. “I’m not afraid to be loud on the court obviously, as everyone that watches me play knows.”
Additionally, she’s the type of player to take charge. In charge of the team’s serve-receive, she won’t hesitate to step in if a teammate is struggling and won’t wait for the coaches to make an adjustment.
“For me, I’ve been on varsity the longest,” Stark said. “I’ve been on varsity since the eighth grade. I kind of hold myself accountable to be the leader.”
Stark wants to support her teammates. She wants them to be able to come to her if they are in a slump or have a question. Combine that with her game IQ and she’s essentially a coach on the floor.
Grussing admits she had to dial Stark back a tad during her junior season. With the Cards libero thinking and reacting to the game, more quickly than most others, it can be difficult for everyone to be on the same page. Still, that hasn’t caused any real friction between Stark and her teammates. In fact, Stark adores them.
“We are all super close, even the non-seniors. It’s something that I’ll never be able to take for granted,” Stark said. “We get along so well even when we are outside of school or outside of practice, it doesn’t matter. We’re always spending time with each other. They’re some of my best friends and I'll always be friends with all of them.”
Even with the coach-on-the-floor moniker, Stark is still eager to learn and get better.
This season, she’s worked on cushioning hard hits so they won’t go over the net. It’s all part of the process of being the best player she could be.
“She always wants to learn every possible way to do things,” Grussing said. “Every year, it seems like we have kind of a different focus and we try and work on something different.”
The next chapter
Next season, Stark will take her talents to North Dakota State University.
Her father started her recruiting process as a ninth-grader. That’s when the Bison program began to reach out to Stark. Several other Summit League schools — the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State, Wisconsin-Green Bay — showed interest, as did Rice University in Texas.
By her sophomore year, the front runner became clear. After attending multiple Bison camps, she committed to NDSU later that season.
“Tenth grade when I really started liking NDSU,” Stark said. “I went on a visit, and I did go to other schools and their camps too, but I was super lucky enough to get a good offer at a school that I fell in love with instantly. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going to find anything better; that’s why I had the great opportunity to commit super early.”
For late scores …
For all of Friday night’s high school results, including football and Section 8AA cross-country, go on-line to the West Central Tribune’s E-edition at Epaper.WCTrib.com