MUNCIE, Ind. — Sitting at her locker prior to her first match at the collegiate level, Esther Grussing couldn’t help but feel the butterflies.

To be fair to the Willmar High School graduate, she was about to enter a volleyball stage far larger than anything she had experienced.

On Sept. 3, the redshirt freshman setter made her debut for Division I Ball State University as the Cardinals traveled to West Lafayette, Ind. and faced No. 18-ranked Purdue. Playing one set and collecting an assist during the 3-0 defeat to the Boilermakers, Grussing said that she was somewhat intimidated by the amount of fans watching her perform, but her nerves subsided once it was time to get in on the action.

“I think the jitters came out as soon as they said my name or they said my number to go on the court,” Grussing said. “As for being on the court, after the first set, it seemed fine to me. I didn’t get nervous and I knew that they were other people also in the same boat. So I knew that since I was with them, it wouldn’t be as much as a pressure situation than last year being with all seniors.”

Joining a group of nine freshmen for the 2019 campaign, Grussing has helped the young Ball State program to a 10-8 record this season. Appearing in 35 sets through 12 matches, she is second on the team with 274 assists. She has also produced 51 digs, 23 kills and 13 total blocks this season.

During her second match, Grussing put up a season-high 51 assists in a five-set victory over Grand Canyon. More than a week later, the redshirt freshman dished out 121 assists over the course of three matches at the Northern Kentucky Tournament, which included a 50-assist effort in a five-set defeat to Cincinnati.

“That was probably my favorite weekend as a Ball State Cardinal volleyball player,” Grussing said.

Waiting and adjusting

Contributing to the team’s success this season, Grussing credits her production to the time she spent learning as a redshirt.

At the college level, the difference between the speed of the game, along with the size of the women playing and how hard they hit is night and day compared to the high school and club levels. Sitting out the 2018 campaign, the setter had ample time to get acclaimated to the pace of play.

“I kind of liked being redshirted ‘cause you got to ease into it more than being there right away,” the setter remarked. “You kind of got a fresh start by relaxing and then getting into it.”

Grussing said adjusting to things on the court wasn’t much of a problem. However, other areas in the college experience have been more of a challenge.

“With our schedule, you don’t have a lot of time to kind of relax,” Grussing said. “The first semester was kind of like go, go, go, and then you go to bed and that was your relax time. ... I just would say college is just such a way faster pace than high school. You kind of had to learn quick.”

Comparing her current city to St. Cloud, Grussing doesn’t think Muncie, Ind., the home of Ball State University, is dramatically different from Willmar. Muncie’s population was 70,085 in 2010, according to the United States Census. But the two cities possess the same small-town vibe. With that said, there’s one glaring difference, though.

“The only thing that’s different is that there’s more restaurants, so that makes it a lot better than Willmar,” Grussing joked.

A family sport

Midway through her high-school career, Grussing committed to Ball State prior to her junior season at Willmar High School. After two campus visits, she fell head-over-heels with the campus and program.

Grussing is one of three people in her family to play volleyball at the collegiate level. Her older sister, Riley, enjoyed a fine career at St. Anselm, while mother Traci, who currently coaches the Willmar High School program, spent her playing days at Hamline University.

While she enjoyed participating in basketball and track when she was younger, it’s easy to see where Esther’s love for volleyball originated.

“The love for volleyball started when I was at my sister’s club practices in Willmar,” Esther said. “I just remember watching her on her team and wanting to do that, and having a group that I could trust and be friends with to see every other day or every single day knowing that no matter what, we’re there for each other. ... It just makes your heart kind of warm and meeting new people is one of my favorite things.”

Esther began playing the sport during the fourth grade in Junior Olympic volleyball. She enjoyed it in the moment, but becoming an effective player took some time.

“When she started, she wasn’t really that good at it,” Traci said. “I think when she developed more and then found out she was actually very good at it, that’s when she really enjoyed playing the game to play, and became more competitive. That was probably around the seventh or eighth grade.”

Lettering at Willmar as a freshman, Esther played with Riley, who was a senior.

With their mother as the coach, Esther and Riley could have received some resentment, but their playing time was never predicated on nepotism. Under Traci Grussing’s leadership, minutes on the floor are earned, not given, and favoritism is non-existent.

With all the players under the same umbrella, Esther remembers everyone being close with one another. That doesn’t mean there weren’t moments that she wanted to step in while sitting on the bench.

“My sister was also a setter. I wanted to play, but my sister is older, so I knew that she’d get to play,” Esther said while giggling. “Sometimes, I’d try to sway my mom, like ‘maybe you should put me in,’ or things like that, but it never worked out.”

Coaching from a distance

In her senior season at Willmar, Grussing led the Cardinals to a 25-5 mark and a conference championship as team captain. The team went 85-29 through her four-year career. Along the way, she amassed 2,614 assists, 691 digs, 169 blocks and 141 aces. She was also a three-time First Team All-Central Lakes Conference player.

A player with that much productivity might have trouble waiting her turn at the next level, but Esther embraced not being on the floor as a redshirt. She wasn’t the only one needing to adjust.

“With her redshirting for a year, I think that really helped her, but it also really helped me as a parent, ‘cause I’m not used to watching her sit and not play,” she said. “So having to spend a whole year where she didn’t play at all made it easier now to watch her.”

Traci Grussing has been with Esther nearly every step of the way, leading her as her club coach, and later her high-school coach. She admits that things have been different not guiding her daughter from sidelines, but with every phone call after one of Esther’s matches, Traci isn’t simply a fan.

“As a coach, everytime I watch I still can’t help but analyze everything. But then after the game, I just try to limit myself to just one comment every time,” Traci said with a laugh. “She does well with that.”

‘Way different from Minnesota’

Esther Grussing was born on Jan. 27, 2000 in Cap Haitien, Haiti. Four years after she was born, Steven and Traci Grussing adopted Esther, welcoming her to her new home of Willmar.

Everybody has trouble with their memory at 4 years old, but moving from a tropical island to the midwest, Esther vividly remembers one thing.

“The only thing was just the temperature, just way different from Minnesota,” Esther said. “It was a huge change. I wasn’t expecting that. When I first came, it was around November or December, and my parents said that when I came, there was snow, and I was so confused.”

Attending private school during her elementary years, Esther was greeted by other Haitian kids who also attended the school and were adopted.

After entering the public school system, Esther had her concerns about things potentially being different, but she was never discriminated against, calling her life growing up “pretty normal.” The only challenge that she faces is trying to keep up with her homeland’s native language of Haitian creole, saying that she knows only a handful of words.

She has not been back to Haiti since she came to the United States, but she intends to visit the country after she’s done with college.

“When I was younger, I was very into the culture, but as I got older, I kinda grew apart from it,” Esther said. “Now, after college, I’m realizing that I really need to get back into it. I want to understand a little bit more.”