Purdue HHS volleyball players thrive on the court, in class and way beyond

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

Caitlyn Newton, Grace Cleveland and Jael Johnson, from left, celebrate a point during a Purdue volleyball game.

Health and Human Sciences students Caitlyn Newton, Grace Cleveland and Jael Johnson, from left, celebrate a point during a Purdue University volleyball game last season.Purdue Athletics

Grace Cleveland’s brush with a future Olympian was memorable — and a little painful.

The senior studying retail management was a first-year outside hitter for the Purdue University volleyball team when Annie Drews, 2015 School of Hospitality and Tourism Management alumna and Tokyo Olympic gold medalist who lit up millions of television screens this summer with her thunderous hits, visited a practice in between professional tournaments in Europe.

During that 2018 alumnae scrimmage, Drews soared through the air for one of her signature laser-blast hits. Cleveland reached both hands up to block at the net.

“She gave me the worst jammed fingers I’ve ever had,” laughed the 6-foot-3-inch student-athlete from Bloomington, Illinois. “I think my knuckles are back to normal now.”

With the fresh memory of Drews and the rest of Team USA Volleyball’s Olympic championship, Purdue volleyball is off to a historic start, earning its highest NCAA ranking in program history at No. 6. The team also has its largest roster ever with 21 student-athletes, 13 of which are Purdue College of Health and Human Sciences majors. Since that Drews block attempt, Cleveland has grown into a team leader. Now in her final year at Purdue, Cleveland is still inspired by Drews, whether she’s sharing the practice court with her or watching the athlete dominate internationally on TV.

Grace Cleveland readies for a hit.

Grace Cleveland, a senior studying retail management, readies for a hit during a recent match.Purdue Athletics

“She’s amazing,” Cleveland said. “She’s come back to talk to us, and I’ve texted with her a few times before. She’s been a student-athlete, and now just to see her at her best and doing what she loves, I know how much hard work she had to go through.”

Under pressure?

While the Purdue volleyball team has been a consistent presence in the NCAA top-25 rankings for the last five seasons, that No. 6 ranking brought more spotlight and a little more pressure to the young season so far. Plus, the team played to empty seats last season. This fall, the fans are back, and expectations are high.

“Coming back to a full gym this season, it was so weird at first,” said Jael Johnson, a senior middle blocker studying speech, language and hearing sciences. “We have to keep the perspective that there is a lot of season left. We’re ranked sixth in the third week of the season. That doesn’t really mean a lot right now. It’s where we end up, going into the national tournament. But it does show our potential for sure and how far we can go.”

That pressure includes balancing academic rigor with all of the match film study, practice and travel that comes with competing on a NCAA Division I team. The Purdue volleyball team also ranks high in classroom achievement. The team’s combined grade point average of 3.53 in 2020-21 earned them the American Volleyball Coaches Association Team Academic Award.

“It’s taken a lot of self-discipline and time management that has been developed during my time here,” said Johnson, who plans to attend graduate school to become a speech-language pathologist. “I’m really thankful to be here. I love this team, and I love this program.”

Pass, set, HHS

While their focus is pinpoint on the next matches, Johnson, Cleveland and Caitlyn Newton, a graduate student in the Department of Public Health, are starting to explore career options for 2022. Playing professional volleyball like Drews is an option for these team leaders, but their academic training and research are revealing career opportunities that match their passions away from the court.

Caitlyn Newton goes up for a dink during a recent match.

Caitlyn Newton goes up for a dink during a recent match. Now a graduate student in public health, she wants to play professional volleyball before starting her career in the mental health sector.Purdue Athletics

Due to the NCAA Women’s Volleyball  allowing players another year of eligibility to catch up from the 2020 season, which was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Newton started her graduate studies online this fall after earning her bachelor’s degree in the Department or Psychological Sciences.

“After school, I do plan to play professional volleyball as long as my body allows me and get to explore the world a little bit,” said Newton, an outside hitter. “When I get back, I want to work with mental health — maybe mental health administration.”

Cleveland will combine her expertise in retail management, selling and sales management and apparel design and technology — all programs within the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management — for her future career. She probably won’t have to attempt to block Drews again, but the experience she has gained on the court and off at Purdue will serve her well.

“We all really look up to Annie in a lot of ways,” Cleveland said. “She was a great student-athlete here and the epitome of what we want to be.”