The Marist College Women’s Volleyball team huddles up before the opening set of every match, raising their hands skyward. In a sport where height provides an invaluable advantage, the players’ arms stretch well over six feet.
But, if you look closely, you’ll see a hand in the huddle that doesn’t quite reach the others. It belongs to Brooke Zywick – the team’s libero – standing at a mere 5’4”.
Liberos are generally the shorter members of the volleyball team, but Zywick knows that her tiny stature is rare at the collegiate level.
“I know that I’m small,” she said. “I’m small for any sport, let alone volleyball. My teammates, who are my best friends, average about six inches taller than me. It has always been that way.”
And yet – the Garden City, Mich., native was committed to play Division 1 volleyball at Marist College by the end of her junior year in high school, following nominations for Michigan’s Miss Volleyball, American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America and two all-conference selections. During her first two seasons at Marist, she appeared in every match and led her team in digs, quickly becoming nationally ranked. Her most recent athletic distinction came at the conclusion of this fall’s regular season; she broke Marist’s all-time single season dig record with a staggering 511 digs – demolishing the previous record of 480 – and was subsequently named MAAC Volleyball’s Libero of the Year.
“I’ve been playing volleyball for nearly fifteen years now,” Zywick said. “It hasn’t always been easy, simply because I’m so short. Being a libero was basically my only option if I wanted to keep playing, and so I needed to be good at it, to prove myself.”
Her father, Dan Zywick, echoed this sentiment. “Brooke was allowed to play any sport she wanted growing up…but nothing stuck like volleyball. I’m so proud of her for sticking with it, overcoming the challenge of being smaller than almost every player on the court. Michigan has a surprisingly up-and-coming premier volleyball program statewide, and so standing out from the rest is a very hard thing to do. In her case, I think scouts admired her determination as much as her skill.”
Zywick’s advantage as a libero falls under the category of defensive specialist. Already low to the ground, she possesses the ability to dive to the ground and “dig up” the volleyball to her teammates. And, although she is not allowed to hit the volleyball in certain areas of the court, she doesn’t need to be substituted out with the rest of the rotation.
Gena Russo, Zywick’s teammate and another junior on Marist’s current team, notes that Brooke’s presence on the team is crucial to their overall success. “Brooke is an animal,” she laughed. “Not many teams have a libero that can make such a difference in the match. We’ve faced some all-American players with unreal spiking ability, and Brooke has stopped them in their tracks.”
Her unparalleled digging skills have earned her the nickname “Grave Digger” from the ever-growing fan section at the volleyball games. Despite a 3-set loss to Fairfield University at Sunday’s MAAC Championships, every dig from Zywick would be met with a resounding, low-pitched “Graaaaaave Diggggger” chant from the fans.
Zywick is a true example of an athlete who takes a potential disadvantage and turns it into an incredible advantage, both on and off the court. In both 2012 and this current season, the political science major was named to the MAAC All-Academic team; her summers are spent coaching youth girl’s volleyball teams.
“I want to erase the stigma that you have to be a certain height or size to be successful at a sport. Not even just volleyball,” she said. “If you work hard enough, and give it your all, you can be successful. Period.”