Stepping Up

Lee Feinswog
Haley, Cayden, and Julia Eckerman after a match at the Nike Big Four Classic earlier this season.

Another Texas victory is in the books. While her own son, 3-year-old Cayden, sprints around the Gregory Gym floor, Haley Eckerman is a magnet for seemingly every other child in the building. Young volleyball players flock to her for autographs, to pose for a picture, to be close to the Texas star. To just say hi to someone who in turn makes them suddenly feel like a member of the team.

“I love that kid. She’s one of my favorite people,” said Bobbi Petersen, the head coach at the University of Northern Iowa, which is a couple of miles from Eckerman’s hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. Haley went to summer camp at UNI and was a ball girl for their matches.

“Obviously we know her very well and the kind of person she is. I have four kids, and [they] always have looked up to her. She’s always been so kind to them. She’s just a really, really neat person besides being an exceptional volleyball player.”

Eckerman stands 6 feet, 3 inches tall. The junior outside hitter can blast a volleyball like few others in the college game. She’s a mom, a student, by all accounts a great teammate, and last year’s Volleyball co-Player of the Year whose Texas team won the 2012 NCAA championship.

Her coach, Jerritt Elliott, knew that the support system at Texas would benefit Eckerman, but the way it’s turned out both on and off the court is most satisfying.

“As a coach you have so many chances to win, but most of us go home losing every year. So you’ve got to take something else away from this profession to make this an enjoyable experience,” Elliott said. “Seeing young players develop into young women is huge and to see someone like Haley, who has this responsibility and these pressures and wants to be successful in the classroom and on the volleyball court, it’s just amazing.”

“She’s an inspiration for athletes around the country,” said her Texas teammate Khat Bell. “[It’s amazing] how much time and effort she puts into volleyball and being a student and then being a mom, as well. It’s pretty tough on her, but she gets through it.”

Eckerman admits she gets pretty tired sometimes.

“Two-a-days are the hardest,” she said.

And then there’s a season like this one, with all the hoopla following a national title, a season-opening tournament at Hawai’i, and the rigors of traveling in the Big 12.

“We definitely use FaceTime,” said Haley’s mom, Julia Eckerman, who watches Cayden when Haley can’t.

“She is amazing. I am so proud of her. I don’t know how she handles everything, from still doing very well in school to coming home and wanting to spend time with [Cayden] on top of being tired and sore and having had a long day.”

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Speaking of long days, Julia Eckerman, now 40, never expected to be a grandmother while still in her 30s or to take on the role of mom for a third time. For that matter, she never expected her daughter, at the time a volleyball prodigy in her junior year of high school, to become a mom herself.

“Not what we wanted, not what we thought was gonna happen,” Julia Eckerman said with a laugh. “No, not at all. Lots of decisions that went through our heads and things that could have happened and we just knew we had to make it work.”

Haley had already committed to faraway Texas. She had youth national team experience with an eye on a pro career and the Olympics. Being pregnant was the last thing she thought about.

Literally.

“I actually had my period, but it was spotty. But I was having some rib issues. I had pulled three ribs when I was training for USA that August. So I came home and was still having problems and still having problems.

“In February they went and did an X-ray and found nothing wrong. Then they thought it could be my kidney, so they did an ultrasound on my kidney.”

Haley laughs while telling this story.

“And the woman said, ‘Oh, when is your due date?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And she was like, ‘You’re pregnant, honey.’

“And I didn’t really understand what was going on until I looked at the monitor and it wasn’t like the little alien baby, it was a full baby. I was 27-and-a-half weeks.

“You couldn’t tell I was gaining weight until the end of eight months, beginning of nine months. It was very shocking and very fast, because normally parents have this whole time to get a crib ready and get a room ready and do all this stuff and ours was just so quick.”

On top of having to prepare for motherhood, Eckerman was worried about her future at Texas. It turns out she had nothing to worry about. Elliott and associate head coach Salima Rockwell immediately gave their unconditional support.

“Other programs could have said they were not going to deal with it,” Julia Eckerman said.

Haley, of course, had to deal with it. “That was the biggest thing, what do I do? Should I do an adoption? I was in high school, thinking, ‘I don’t have a job, I haven’t gone to college, and I don’t have a degree.’”

But the support Haley got helped her make the decision.

“Mom said she would move. Relatives gave stuff. That helped me realize who was really there for the friendship and not just along for the ride with me being a volleyball player. That helped me realize who was there for me and who was there for the fame.”

But while Haley was pregnant, Bell, who is from Mesquite, Texas, said her friend basically went incommunicado. The two had met in the junior national program and had been friends for years.

“After she got pregnant and was trying to figure things out, she basically disappeared off the face of the earth,” Bell said. “And then one day I got on Facebook and there she was and there was the baby and I was like, ‘He’s yours?’ and she was like, ‘He’s mine.’ And we got back to talking and she told me the whole story.”

The whole story is pretty remarkable, especially when you factor in just how good a volleyball player Eckerman is. Last year the First Team All-American was the Big 12 Player of the Year, and she became the ninth player in storied Texas history to get 500 kills in a season.

“She’s worked hard to get herself in really good shape from her freshman year,” Texas trainer DeAnn Koehler said. “The difference from her freshman year to her sophomore year was amazing. She really brought it, worked with a sports nutritionist, worked with me and in strength and conditioning, and changed her body composition pretty phenomenally.

“It made a huge difference. Her freshman year, toward the end I felt like she was fatigued, and that’s when we lost to Kentucky. Then last year she was on fire all the way through.”

Indeed. In the Longhorns’ three-set victory over Oregon in the national-title match, Eckerman had 12 kills in 25 attempts with just two errors, hitting .400.

This season, through UT’s first eight matches, she was the team kill leader with 115, which is even more remarkable when you think that the offense includes the 6'1" Bell and 6'3" Bailey Webster.

And she’s done well in the classroom, too.

Eckerman said she’s had only A’s and B’s during her time at Texas. Just recently she declared her major in youth community studies.

“We talk a lot about what if she didn’t come here, or what if there was no Cayden, would she still be doing the things she’s doing now,” Julia Eckerman said.

“All those things are still questions, but things happen for a reason.”

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There was so much to consider before Cayden was born, especially for Julia Eckerman, a single mom. Not only was there Haley, who turns 21 November 10, there was her other daughter, Aleah, now 13. Aleah, by the way, just started volleyball and is slowly getting into it.

For Haley’s senior year, things continued more or less like they had before. While Cayden weighed 8 pounds when he was born on May 10, 2010, she laughs about only gaining 15 because of the pregnancy, much to the chagrin of every mother reading this. She had missed club season but was ready for her last year in high school.

“I was playing and everything was fine,” she said with a giggle.

She admitted feeling overwhelmed, but also said that everybody was very supportive. And once Cayden was born, she said all the high school and club parents “wanted to hold him and keep him.”

Julia, meanwhile, knew a decision was forthcoming. Haley was headed to Texas and the warm climate of Austin, a place Julia was interested in not only for her daughter’s sake but also because she has Raynaud’s disease, which, simply put, means her extremities are cold almost all the time.

“When we know a gym is going to be cold, I have to pack mittens,” Julia said.

Julia knew she had to move to Austin, but it wasn’t going to be easy. She left not only a job she had had for 13 years, but also family and friends. What’s more, it took eight months to get a job in Austin, she said.

“Her mom has made so many sacrifices for Haley in so many ways,” UNI’s Petersen said. “Even before [Haley] had her son, [Julia] made sacrifices to make sure she had the best opportunity available. It’s hard doing it on your own, but she was always there making those sacrifices and was always there for her [daughter]. And I have never heard her complain. It’s a really good story.”

“It was what was right for our family,” Julia said. “But I’ve learned so much from Haley. I’d never have left Waterloo, Iowa. I would never have thought of doing that. I had always lived there. She has made me become more independent and more outgoing.”

And don’t think Haley doesn’t appreciate her mother’s support.

“I’m just thankful and blessed to have the opportunity [to be a student at Texas],” she said. “A lot of people back home don’t have the support. They drop out of school, they don’t go to college; they just work and live paycheck to paycheck.

“So I am extremely blessed to have my mom and even my sister. She made a huge change to move to a new state and to adapt so quickly, and she’s such a huge help to my mom, too.”

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When they beat Oregon last December, giving Texas its first NCAA volleyball title in 20 years, setter Hannah Allison expected her teammates to join her in a dog pile. But Bell, with whom Allison teamed for the final block, raced to Coach Elliott. Eckerman said she started crying by the time the last point hit the floor. Both Allison, from Siloam Springs, Ark., and Eckerman make fun of how bad the celebration was.

“I never won a championship ever in high school,” Eckerman said. “Not in club, either. So that was just huge for me to know what that feels like. I was almost speechless. It’s hard to explain. Obviously our dog pile was horrible. That explains everything. For all of us it was great to finally have that feeling. We did it and went through so many emotions, and so many wins and so many losses and ups and downs as a team, and so many team meetings that were player-only. I think that was the best part, to know that all the hard work we put in finally paid off.”

It was fitting that she won with Bell and Allison, too, since they’ve been together in some form or fashion since they were 14, playing in the national junior program.

When they met, Bell recalls seeing Eckerman more as a person than as a rising talent. “She’d been playing for a long time and I hadn’t. But before we ever stepped on the court we automatically bonded [over] how we both act and the background we come from.”

In their case, single-parent homes.

Bell still feels that they have a special bond. “To me it means a lot. I miss my family and am used to being around other people, and Haley’s been a great mentor, a very good teammate, a mom, and a very good friend,” Bell said. “I have a lot of tough times sometimes and she’s always there to talk to me and push me through it.”

Allison is also in admiration of her main setting target.

“She had a huge task in front of her coming to college away from home with a child and to a program that has such high demands of its student athletes,” Allison said. “We have a lot of demands outside of volleyball. There’s media, there’s training, there’s treatment. There are things we have access to because we’re a very good school with a lot of resources, but it makes your schedule crazy. And she does a great job of spending as much time with [Cayden] as she can while still being very committed to her role on our team.”

That team is pretty good and is certainly in the mix again this year.

“We’re not going to be perfect every night,” Eckerman said. “We’re not going to do everything right and each player is not going to hit .500. Things are going to go wrong, we’re going to face adversity, and we’re going to have to learn how to play with it.”

And when they do face challenging teams, they usually win, which means a happy post-match time for autographs and visiting with all those young girls who admire her.

Eckerman enjoys interacting with the fans, but not because it makes her feel famous. “I would want someone to do the same for [Cayden],” she said. “I grew up back home where I was kind of the role model to everybody. I think that’s why I chose community studies. Because I love kids and love making things better for them.”

Considering her post-game popularity and the fact that she has a son of her own, that’s a good thing.

Originally published in November 2013

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