Northwestern University women's volleyball coach Keylor Chan has seen Burlington Central graduate Stephanie Holthus undergo quite a metamorphosis during her time in Evanston.
"I say this to Steph all the time," the 14th-year Northwestern head coach said. "I've never seen a player improve as much as she has in all areas of volleyball. We're talking the psychology of volleyball, the emotional aspect and her physical skill set. I'm so proud of what she has accomplished so far and I know she wants to do so much more."
The 5-foot-11 Holthus, now a senior outside hitter for the Wildcats, is having a final season to remember. She recently was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association national player of the week after a stellar performance in the team's Wildcat Classic.
Holthus, who also was named Big Ten Conference player of the week Monday for the third time in her career, averaged a lofty 6.2 kills and 4.1 digs per set for the Wildcats, who downed South Florida, Miami of Ohio and IUPUI to win their second tournament of the season. She hit .358 during the event and recorded double-doubles (10 or more kills and digs) in all three triumphs.
In a 5-set win over South Florida, she registered a career-high 24 digs and finished with 27 kills -- one shy of a career-best in that category.
In a win over Miami, Holthus, a 2012 AVCA all-American, set the school record with 24 kills in a 3-set match. That 24-kill total was the most by a Northwestern player in a 3-set match since 2003.
Against IUPUI, Holthus had 17 kills and 11 digs. She is only the second Northwestern women's volleyball player to earn the AVCA honor and the first since 2003.
"It's definitely an honor. There are a lot of talented players out there and I'm fortunate to know some of them," she said. "It's amazing to get national recognition."
Holthus, the honorary captain of the 2009 Daily Herald Fox Valley all-area girls volleyball team, stressed credit also should be heaped on her teammates.
"Our team is playing really well and we're all coming together really nicely," she said. "My teammates are doing a lot of things that are helping me be successful."
Chan added another key part of Holthus' improvement is her leadership skills.
"Stephanie is learning to become a tremendous leader," he said. "Those are skills we've talked with her about the last couple years -- the non-tangibles. You can really see her starting to command the court and her teammates trust her and want to follow her. She's been outstanding with that."
Holthus doesn't shy away from the leadership responsibilities.
"Especially as a senior, it's important to help lead the other girls," she said. "We have a pretty young team. We have about 6 freshmen on the team who are learning what it's like to play in the Big Ten and go to school here as well."
Holthus couldn't be happier playing Division I volleyball in a sport-rich conference such as the Big Ten.
"It's definitely an amazing experience playing in the Big Ten," she said. "You are challenged every day. Playing in the Big Ten is one of the reasons why I chose Northwestern. Every time you step out on the court it's going to be a challenge and there is not an easy way out. That's how you become the best you can be, by being challenged like that."
Northwestern (8-4 overall) opens Big Ten play Friday at home against perennial national power Nebraska (7 p.m. start; Iowa comes to Evanston Saturday for another 7 p.m. contest). Speaking of Nebraska, Holthus deems a 2011 match against the Huskers as her favorite moment of her Evanston playing tenure.
"My favorite moment definitely was when we beat Nebraska in 2011 and at the time they were ranked No. 2 in the country and had won the Big Ten," she said. "It was our last game of the season. It was an awesome way to send the seniors out on a big note like that."
Holthus heads into the Nebraska match averaging 4.18 kills and 3.16 digs per set. She's accounted for 31 percent of the squad's kill total thus far. For her career, she now ranks sixth on the all-time Northwestern kills list with 1,482. She needs 8 kills to move into fifth place. She also ranks 10th all-time in career digs (1,145) and is the program's all-time leader in kills per set (3.72).
"There are a lot of talented athletes who have come through the program," she said. "It's definitely an honor to be considered one of the best."
Holthus also is appreciative of the educational experience she's had at the school. She's an education major.
"(The academics) definitely are challenging," she said. "It's like anything else, it has its ups and downs. You learn a lot about what it takes and you learn a lot about how to be successful in the future. At Northwestern, we're challenged on the court in the Big Ten and off the court in the classroom."
Holthus said her plans after the season is over involve playing for a season professionally in Puerto Rico.
"(It's) another dream I've had since I was younger," she said. "I will play a season there and then plan on coming back here."
As an education major (secondary teaching), Holthus would like to become a teacher and hopefully coach volleyball.
But before she hits the start button on her future, she still has plenty to accomplish on the court at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
"I like how hardworking we are," she said. "We have a lot of talent in the gym and everybody wants to get better. My main goal is to help get us to the Sweet 16 (of the NCAA tournament). No Northwestern team has made it to that point before. That's been one of my big goals since I came here as a freshman."
Holthus, a two-time academic all-Big Ten recipient, also is one of 30 nominees for the 2013 Senior CLASS Award. Holthus has compiled notable achievements in four areas of excellence -- community, classroom, character and competition. The group of 30 national nominees will be whittled to 10 finalists at the midway point of the season when media, coaches and fans will have an opportunity to vote on the candidate who best exemplifies the four categories.