Daniel Sipocz

Senior Hannah Sullivan isn't used to being a defensive specialist. She made her name as an outside hitter, but her presence as a defender has defined her Ball State legacy.

For the first time in 35 years as a coach, Steve Shondell promoted a player to team captain midseason. That player was Sullivan. She joined junior setter Brittany McGinnis, junior middle blocker Kelsey Brandl, and senior libero Alyssa Rio as Shondell endorsed leaders.

"Hannah is a competitor. She leads this team through her spirit and showing how much winning means to her," Shondell said. "Hannah has worked so hard and gotten through adversity with such a great attitude. I felt she deserved it."

As a standout outside hitter in high school, Sullivan took New Albany High School to the state finals. She raked in accolades and attention while being recruited by major Division I programs, such as Cincinnati and Kentucky.

The sky was the limit. Ultimately, Sullivan chose Houston.

"I wanted to go as far away from my hometown as possible," Sullivan said. "I really liked the warmer weather and it was the furthest away."

Sullivan excelled in her lone season at Houston. She earned Conference USA All-freshman honors, ranked second on the Cougars with 304 kills and 262 digs. But Houston still finished 13-15.

On the surface, everything looked fine. Sullivan was successful. She loved Houston and the big city culture. She loved to travel to Conference USA schools, especially trips to Central Florida and Disney World.

But she left the team in the spring. The dynamic with the coaching staff wasn't what Sullivan had expected.

She returned to Indiana, joining Ball State in 2008. Expectations were high. She was expected to bring firepower to a team coming off its worst season in program history.

"I really liked Ball State because of the campus feel," Sullivan said. "I didn't have the traditional campus experience at Houston. It was in the middle of the city and was a commuter school."

Still, things didn't work out just right. Sullivan wasn't the top offensive option. She managed only 208 kills her first season as a Cardinal, fourth on the team.

Then injuries piled up. Muscle strains that had limited Sullivan early in 2008 turned into an ankle injury requiring surgery. Last season, Sullivan injured her back in the season opener at Purdue, keeping her out of action for more than half the season.

At times Sullivan wondered why she put herself through the trouble of surgery and rehab. The answer was always obvious.

"I'd miss it too much if I couldn't play," she said.

Sullivan missed the entire nonconference schedule and the first week of the Mid-American Conference slate before returning. She showed flashes of brilliance including a 20-kill performance against Eastern Michigan. Despite a limited schedule, she posted 93 kills.

The injuries had finally taken their toll. The velocity and authority at which Sullivan could smack the ball was still there, but the height of her jump that allowed her to consistently hit great shots was gone.

The addition of freshmen Kylee Baker and Whitney Heeres at outside hitter helped make the decision easy for Sullivan to switch to defense. The transition wasn't quite as easy.

"I miss hitting sometimes," Sullivan said. "I would only want to do it if I could hit the way I used to."

The more defensive reps Sullivan took, the stronger her game became. She became a regular in the lineup for Ball State, sharing time with freshman defensive specialist Catie Fredrich.

Sullivan ranks fourth on the team with 143 digs despite spending part of the season at the net. She trails senior libero Alyssa Rio, freshman outside hitter Kylee Baker and Fredrich.

Now in the midst of her first collegiate winning season, Sullivan is experiencing new highs. After staying the course through the injuries, she continues to take everything in stride.

"It's good to see Hannah going out with a bang," Shondell said. "She's a winner and leads by example. It rubs off on her teammates and those she interacts with.

"She's got a great future ahead of her."