Sweet Sixteen middle blocker reflects on 1998, facing Olympian Misty May

By Anthony Zilis

In 1998, Betsy (Spicer) Brookbank was a sophomore on the Illinois volleyball team playing in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Across the net – NCAA Player of the Year Misty May and the Long Beach State 49ers. The Illini hung tough in the first set, but eventually lost the match 3-0, completing what was one of the best seasons in Illinois history.

Brookbank felt there was something on that team, different from anything she had ever experienced, and she had a chance to reunite with her teammates this weekend at Illinois volleyball’s Alumni Match.

“The team chemistry was just unheard of, I think,” the former middle blocker said. “We’re still so close, and that’s why I get so excited for weekends like this because I get to go see those girls.”

Brookbank realized right away during Saturday’s game this wasn’t 1998, and the alumni stood little chance against the current Illinois team.

“As I ran up here to get going, I was thinking, ‘I’m already tired, and that’s not a good sign,'” Brookbank said jokingly.

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Although the alumni were soundly defeated in three sets, Brookbank knew the event wasn’t about winning or losing. It was about reconnecting with a group of people with whom she had experienced so much.

“Being around my teammates, just saying the funny inside jokes that we had on the sidelines, it’s just a blast,” Brookbank said. “I’m so glad they made this event, its really special.”

The Barrington, Ill., native was eager to see the teammates who helped give her the most satisfying victory of her career at Huff Hall in the 1998 NCAA Tournament against Colorado – a program which had heavily recruited her.

This was the team that eventually bowed out to Long Beach State and the future two-time Olympic gold medalist May, who Brookbank admires.

“I think what Misty May and (teammate) Kerri Walsh have done for (beach volleyball) is just unbelievable,” she said. “Everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon, and they’re great role models.”

But the 10 years since that memorable season have been filled with twists and turns for Brookbank, who was picked up by Chicago of United States Pro Volleyball (USPV), where she played for two years and aspired to be a role model like her former opponent Misty May.

“So many times families would come up to me and say ‘We love having you guys as role models for our girls,'” the former Illini star said. “And I think it’s important to have (women’s) athletics so it’s not just pop stars, they need to look up at female athletes.”

Brookbank said those days as a pro athlete were some of her best, but they quickly came to an end when the league folded in 2003.

“When the USPV was going, it was my dream job,” Brookbank said. “I still to this day hate that day they told me the league was folding, because if not I would still be playing for sure.”

Brookbank found one last opportunity to play professional volleyball when she was signed by a team in Portugal. But this was short-lived, as she found living overseas didn’t fit into her way of life.

“Going overseas was great, but you have to leave your family for months in a row, and I’m a huge family person, so that didn’t fit very well with my life,” she said.

Brookbank wouldn’t be out of volleyball for long, as she soon got a call from former Illinois assistant coach Anne Kordes, head coach at St. Louis University, about joining her staff as an assistant coach.

The former Illinois standout accepted the position for the Billikens and was introduced to a different side of the game.

“I liked seeing that side of volleyball,” Brookbank said. “Instead of playing it, I liked being behind the scenes, and doing all the recruiting and things like that.

When she had a baby last year, she decided to quit coaching and leave volleyball again to focus on family. But Brookbank isn’t closing the door on the possibility of coaching again in the future.

“I definitely see myself doing that, maybe in a couple of years or so, once my little ones get older,” she said.

But Brookbank isn’t completely removed from the world of sports. She is married to Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Wade Brookbank. Although she said this makes her desire to continue a pro career even stronger, being married to a professional athlete sometimes eases the pain of being away from sport.

“Seeing him, at least I get to kind of go and live through him with his games,” Brookbank said with a laugh. “We get to move a lot, see a lot of new cities, so that’s pretty cool.”

As for starting up a new professional volleyball league in the United States, Brookbank delivered a clear and concise message.

“I say ‘Why not?’ Out of the four cities that were there, we would sell out,” she said. “If the WNBA can go, I really feel like a volleyball league can go.”

As for whether she would play in this new league, Brookbank wasn’t so sure.

“Oh man, if I could still be playing I would be, I promise you that,” Brookbank said. “But everyone would be, like, ‘Get that old lady off the court.’ So I don’t know.”