The long way home

Photo courtesy of Valparaiso University AthleticsBrooke Westphal, a Michigan City graduate, is playing her senior year at Valparaiso after sitting out the last two seasons.

VALPARAISO -- Fresh off of two successful years at South Florida State College, Brooke Westphal landed a scholarship offer from Arizona State in 2017.

Volleyball life was good for the Michigan City graduate.

"It was, oh, Pac 12, that's so cool, it's everybody's dream," Westphal said.

But the dream quickly went sideways for Westphal, who realized not too long after her arrival in Tempe that she had made the wrong choice.

"I think I made a rapid decision to go there," she said. "I wasn't focusing on the right things, like the connection I had with the coaches and the team. The first month there was brutal. I think the environment in general, the experience, it wasn't what I wanted. I knew it wasn't for me."

Westphal had made it through the summer semester and part of the fall when she chose to leave before ever playing in a match.

"It was very hard on me," she said. "It was really hard, leaving your dream, something you had worked so hard for."

Her future a complete unknown, Westphal came home to "work on myself," presuming at that point that volleyball was out of the equation.

"I thought I was done," she said. "I didn't really know how I would get back into it, if I wanted to go through the recruiting process again. I needed time to clear my head, to figure out what about a school I didn't like, how do I go forward, what do I want to find in a school. My emotions were scattered everywhere."

While working a full-time job, Westphal used the down time to refocus and figure out her plans. She'd begun playing beach volleyball in La Porte when club coach Mike Mathis sought her out.

"He came up to me and said, what are you doing with your life?" Westphal said. "I said, I don't know. (He told me,) you're a gift to everyone that sees you play, you need to share your gift."

Those kind words served as a major motivator to Westphal.

"I thought, yeah, you're right, I'm not done playing," she said. "I want to get back into it. I'm going to go back to school, finish my degree."

After getting a formal release from Arizona State, Westphal was placed in the transfer portal. Within two days, she received a text massage from Valparaiso University coach Carin Avery.

"She said she heard I was available, that I was looking for second chance to get back into it, she heard great things about me," Westphal said.

Though she hadn't recruited Westphal while in high school, Avery knew of her.

"We didn't need her position then, but I enjoyed watching her play," Avery said. "I had heard through the local grapevine that maybe she was wanting to get back into volleyball and finish up her degree. I heard nothing but great things about her, not just as a player but as a person, which is important. We had a mutual contact and the rest is history."

Shortly after, Avery saw Westphal play in open gym, Westphal visited the Valpo campus and on Aug. 9, the 5-foot-8 outside hitter committed to the Crusaders.

"She will bring a tremendous amount of competitiveness and grit to our program, and she will remind fans of our long line of outside hitters and defensive specialists who were big game hunters," Avery said at the time.

After two years of unknowns, Westphal had found clarity in a manner of two weeks.

"This is my last chance," she said. "Now that I'm realizing it, I want to end my career doing what I love. I have nothing to lose. I'm at a great school with great people. I think the whole process in a way was meant to happen. Valpo is so natural, the team, the coaching staff. It just clicked. I've made some really good friends. It was hard at first. I'm the oldest one and I have to try to find how I fit in with everything. I'm still earning my respect as a senior. It's been an interesting experience for sure."

Slowly but surely, Westphal is finding her way, appearing in nine sets over the Crusaders' first 10 matches.

"We really pride ourselves in our program, it's not going to be easy, but yet we try to create a great atmosphere for the kids, that they really enjoy each other, have a really good experience," Avery said. "I hope she feels a part of that, especially given what happened earlier in her career. She's fit in great. She's very mature. She says the right things."

A senior athletically and a junior academically, Westphal has about a year-and-a-half left to go for Exercise Science degree. She hopes to pursue a career as a strength and conditioning coach at the collegiate or professional level.

"I think my No. 1 thank you is to my family," she said. "I know it was really hard during those two years, me not doing my thing, not being me. Their support meant everything. I'm glad to be here."


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