Nebraska Nabs High-Level Recruit in Volleyball and Basketball
Story by Mike Malloy • Photos by the Deseret News
There comes a time when a great multi-sport athlete has to make the difficult decision to specialize. It’s still not that time for Maggie Mendelson.
Mendelson, a Fremont (Utah) High School junior from North Ogden, will enroll a year early at Nebraska and intends to play volleyball and basketball next season. Such double duty is rare, but so is an athlete like the 6-foot-5 Mendelson.
“Some people are like ‘you got this’ and some people are like ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do it. It’s so hard,'” Mendelson said. “I’ve got some really good supporters and some people to prove wrong.”
Asking Mendelson which sports she prefers is like asking a parent the same of their children. The love is equal though the sports are different.
“(Volleyball) is more of a perfectionist’s game. You have to know what the other team is doing at all times; know what holes are open, what route you need to run,” Mendelson said. “In basketball you have to run your plays, but for the most part you’re doing what you’re doing and in volleyball you have to play off the other team more.”
Her resume shows why picking one would be so difficult. Last June, Mendelson earned a spot with USA Basketball’s U16 team after competing in a national tryout. The next month, she did the same for USA Volleyball’s U18 team. Each team limits its roster to 12.
She played in international tournaments with both teams this fall.
“Playing against all those amazing girls, and with the best in the U.S. Most kids won’t get that opportunity,” she said. “And they let me keep the jerseys; I got five.”
Mendelson’s been playing beyond her years for quite some time. She joined an Under-17 volleyball club when she was 14, catching the attention of Eric Howard, director of Mendelson’s club volleyball team, the Utah Hive.
“She looked as good as any kid in Utah,” Howard said. “Maggie is legit. There is more than a ‘wow’ factor when you watch her play. She just blows my mind with how well she moves with her size.”
Lisa Dalebout, Mendelson’s high school basketball coach, had a similar first impression when Mendelson was a mere 6-1 fifth-grader.
“She probably could have played on the sophomore team,” Dalebout said. “She wasn’t that gangly tall girl; her speed and athleticism was what made her special.”
Back then, basketball was pretty easy – “I just had to keep the ball high,” Mendelson said – but along the way she’s developed an outside game. Mendelson loves the look on a defender’s face when she makes a 3-pointer.
“It’s one of the best things,” Mendelson said. “They’ll think, ‘I can slink off; she’s not going to shoot it.'”
As good as Mendelson is, the question persists: how can she manage six straight months of competition on top of schoolwork? Laura Buttermore is one of the few who knows what it takes.
The then-Laura Pilakowski was the Nebraska Female Student-Athlete of the year in 2003 after excelling at both sports. That, however, was not the plan.
Two days after Buttermore’s senior volleyball season ended, the two-time All-American’s phone rang. It was then-women’s basketball coach Connie Yori, whose team was short of players and short in stature.
Buttermore, an outside hitter on Nebraska’s 2000 national championship volleyball team, declined Yori’s initial invitation, but eventually agreed to pull on a pair of high-tops for the first time since graduating from Columbus High.
“I was not in basketball shape; that’s for sure,” she said.
Still, she was second on the team in rebounding and played in 18 games, starting three, in her only basketball season with the Huskers.
Could she have imagined playing both sports four years in a row?
“No,” she said. “It was harder mentally. Christmas break is amazing – just take some time for yourself. (Mendelson’s) not going to have that.”
Buttermore, now a strength coach at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said training for both sports is similar, with important differences.
“You still have to have first-step quickness in both sports, but it’s not the repetitive jumping in volleyball or the repetitive running in basketball,” Buttermore said. “The (weight) lifting program for volleyball and basketball are going to be pretty similar; you don’t want to get too sports-specific in the weight room (to avoid) repetitive motion injuries.”
The most valuable part of downtime is developing as a player. Buttermore said she made big strides as a player by going through a spring weight-training program between her freshman and sophomore seasons.
While Mendelson will have it both ways on the court, another decision forced her to choose.
Mendelson led Fremont High to an undefeated state girls basketball championship last spring while averaging 15 points and nine rebounds. A few months later, she decided to reclassify and graduate a year earlier than planned.
“It was thought through but it was a quick decision,” Mendelson said. “It was hard to leave all my friends. It sucks not being able to have my senior-year experience but I’m excited to see what I can do at Nebraska.”
Fremont finished seventh last fall at the state volleyball tournament. In what was her final high school season, Mendelson had 407 kills in 85 sets.
Dalebout, Fremont’s girls basketball coach, said she’s never heard of a Utah high schooler reclassifying but she respects Mendelson’s decision.
“I’d be a fool if I didn’t have some major sadness about her leaving, but I’ve always supported her,” Dalebout said. “We always knew it was a possibility; she was really open and honest about the process.”
Mendelson hit the recruiting trail wanting to find a school that would let her pursue her two-fold dream. After a July visit to Lincoln, her mind was made up.
“I think she’s good enough to start for both (teams),” volleyball coach John Cooke said at a press conference in November.
And Mendelson will have more on her mind than sets and shots. The National Honor Society member carries a 4.0 grade-point average and will major in environmental sciences.
“I’ve always been passionate about helping the Earth. That’s a cheesy thing to say, but I’ve always wanted to help out; lessen my carbon footprint,” Mendelson said.