Cassie Conner, a senior from Chicago, lll., has dealt with numerous challenges throughout her collegiate career, but has used her love for volleyball to bounce back from each one. She has relied on her parents and three older sisters to guide her through a unique journey.
Conner transferred to Chattanooga after two seasons at Ball State, where she went through a coaching change following her freshman season. The Lady Mocs provided her a stable foundation because head coach Lisa Rhodes has guided the program over the past 13 seasons.
"I am excited to have the tallest setter that I have ever coached along with two years of Division I experience at Ball State," said Rhodes two years ago after signing the 5-11 junior. "Cassie will bring leadership, as well as exceptional skills to our setting position.
The year prior the Lady Mocs lost two setters, senior Bethany Herndon and junior Michaela Huff, within a week due to ankle injuries and relied on a true-freshman Bailee Chastain, who guided the team into the Southern Conference semifinals.
As a junior transferring from Ball State, Conner was able to flourish in the spring with Rhodes, who was able to bring back the spark that the Willow Springs, Ill., native had had been searching for. Amongst her new teammates and the structure that comes with being a Division I athlete, she regained her confidence and brought her focus back to volleyball.
"During the season, volleyball is life," reiterated Conner. "Basically, when you are on campus, your friends are your team and you do everything together."
In her first SoCon match, Conner notched a career-high 49 assists against Georgia Southern. She finished her junior campaign second on the team with 481 assists.
"The set that is quick, directly in front or behind me, is my favorite," said Conner, referring to running her favorite play the M and C. "It's a middle set where Ellie (Kuhn) or Courtney (Barnes) come in right behind me. Sometimes, the other team will not have a block, so they will really put the ball down."
Conner as a senior saw herself as the main leader on the team that welcomed nine newcomers. Many of the players were local standouts in the Chattanooga area.
"In the beginning of the season, it was obvious that the freshmen were going to need leadership," said Conner. "I was tough with them. I think they learned the most when I got on them, since I have played the longest at this level. I knew how things needed to be done."
Many of those freshmen and some teammates refer to Conner by her nickname "Sassy." The squad coined the phrase because it rhymes with Cassie and she has a tendency of getting on them at times. The tough love she showed was just her way of leading by example.
With such a young team, the beginning of the season was a real question mark as the younger players tried to prove themselves, but thanks to the lone senior and two juniors Bailee Chastain and Courtney Barnes the team started off 8-3. It was UTC's best start since 1999 and included capturing the Lady Techster Home Tournament in Ruston, La., where the squad seemed to come together.
"We did well in the beginning of the season and well in that tournament," said Conner. "It was positive to go out with a win in possibly the final tournament of my college career."
Throughout the season, Conner and Chastain have battled for the setting position each day in practice. At times, coach Rhodes implemented an offense that used both setters, but in other cases the coach chose one setter based on the week's practice.
"We are roommates," said Chastain, the junior setter that competes daily with Conner. "It is great because we get along with each other and know that we are going to push each other every day. There is no fun competing against someone who rolls over and I know that is just not going to happen with her. Every day, we are fighting for our position."
Going into the final home weekend of the season, Conner has started 10 of 21 matches notching 312 assists and 90 digs. She set her season-high dig total earlier in the season at Western Carolina with 13.
Her journey has brought her from Chicago to Chattanooga with the one constant volleyball.
"When I look back on my college career, I have had an advantage in learning three completely different styles of volleyball," said Conner. "I think each coach focused on a different part of the game and I had the opportunity to learn each aspect."
As student, Conner became interested in psychology from a family friend that works in the court system outside of Chicago. She decided to make that her major after two years of general courses.
"I want to work as an advocate with families that are in jail or on trial and help them through the process," said Conner. "I would talk to them and if they have problems, then I would be like their therapist."
One thing that she realizes in moving back to the big city are the new challenges that await her, but also would bring back the support of her family and closer to where she grew up. Conner is the youngest of four sisters, Elizabeth, Meredith and Caitlin.
As part of an athletic family, Caitlin, was a four-year volleyball letterwinnner from 2003-06 at La Salle. Conner always wanted to follow in her sister's footsteps. Caitlin finished her career second on the Explorers' assist register with 3,232.
"I was only a sophomore in high school," said Conner. "But I felt myself looking up to her especially when she was starting to be recruited by colleges. I would go with her on her visits to schools and even started getting on the computer to look for opportunities for myself. Since then, I knew that I wanted to play at the next level."
Not only has Conner's family been supportive and always positive about trying new things, but as a college basketball player at Southern Illinois, Conner's father, Cameron also provided advice about his experience as a student-athlete.
"My parents have been really supportive of everything that we wanted to do," said Conner. "When we were young, all my sisters played sports. My mom and dad would be at every game cheering from the stands. It is something that I really respect."
The Chicago area native has embraced her time with the Lady Mocs, where she continued her passion for volleyball. Conner looks forward to supporting the team next season, while finishing her psychology degree in the Scenic City.