More than four years after she first stepped foot on Elmhurst College’s campus, Sam Szarmach still recalls her first conversation with volleyball coach Julie Hall.
Hall was recruiting Szarmach, then a standout player at St. Charles East High School attracting attention from several NCAA Division I volleyball programs. Hall wanted Szarmach to know what kind of impact she could have at Elmhurst.
“Julie told me that I could help take the program to new heights,” Szarmach recalls.
Hall’s words would prove prophetic.
Szarmach helped lead the Bluejays on a remarkable run of success. The team qualified for the NCAA postseason tournament in each of Szarmach’s four years, compiling a 132-28 record, winning two conference championships and advancing to the Final Four in 2012. In the process, Szarmach twice earned All-America honors from the American Volleyball Coaches Association. In 2014, when she was co-captain of a 31-9 Bluejay team, Szarmach was named to the Capital One Academic All-America Team. An outside hitter, she finished her career at Elmhurst third in College history in kills.
“She has been a foundation for us, the epitome of someone you want on your team,” Hall said of Szarmach. “She has incredible athleticism, but she is also the most selfless player I’ve ever seen. She’ll do anything for her team.”
The team’s recent success marked a return to championship form. From 1997 to 2005, the Bluejays were among the nation’s elite, averaging more than 31 games a season and making seven postseason tournaments. After several subpar seasons, Szarmach and her teammates helped restore a tradition of winning.
A state champion in high school and the product of competitive club programs, Szarmach might have been expected to play at a higher-profile Division I college program. But she found herself turned off by the college recruiting process and remained unsure about her college choice well into her senior year in high school. When Hall called her at home one night in the winter of that year, Szarmach’s father urged her to hear the coach out. Szarmach was soon committed to Elmhurst.
“We’ve been so lucky to have her,” Hall said. “I’m very glad she took that phone call.”
Szarmach said that she feels like the fortunate one.
“Elmhurst was so different from other schools,” she said. “I found a real chemistry here. My teammates have become more than friends. They’re like another family.”
At the end of the 2014 season, her teammates voted Szarmach the winner of the team’s annual Inspiration Award.
Szarmach thrived in the classroom as well as on the volleyball court. She completed a triple major—in international business, economics and supply chain management—and maintained a 3.82 grade-point average. She became the 35th Bluejay athlete to earn Academic All-America honors and the second in the last two years from the volleyball team.
She hopes to pursue a master’s degree in supply chain logistics and global management at Northumbria University in England, where she would continue her volleyball career.
Her desire to go abroad, she said, was stoked at Elmhurst, where she traveled to western Europe as part of a first-year January Term course and to Costa Rica as part of an extended volleyball road trip.
“I love that the coaches here have been so supportive of us doing other things besides volleyball,” Szarmach said.
Hall said her team will have to learn to compensate for Szarmach’s absence once she graduates this spring.
“[Assistant coach] Lindsay Johnson and I were laughing about it: ‘What are we going to do now?’ Because you don’t replace someone like Sam. Everyone else is just going to have to do a little bit more,” she said.
But Szarmach believes her teammates will get along just fine.
“They know if they ever need anything, they can call me,” she said. “They’ll be okay.”