by Neil Morgan, CBU Sports Information Intern
In his fifth year at California Baptist University, Blair Penner is redefining what it means to be the comeback player of the year.
He is the reigning National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Men's Volleyball Player of the Year, and he is on pace to break several school records, including current CBU Assistant Coach Trevor Johnson's career assists record.
However, this is the season that almost wasn't for Penner, as he nearly did not come back to the program after finishing his 2010 junior season.
"After winning it all last year, I was just burnt out of volleyball," said Penner. "I thought I was done. I pushed myself so hard that the fun of volleyball was hidden behind the stress that took over."
Penner graduated in December with his bachelor's degree, and he is now enrolled in CBU's graduate program. His winter graduation contributed to his decision to walk away from the game.
However, he compared quitting the sport he loved to going cold turkey, saying that in the end he could not help but come back.
"I decided to come back because volleyball has allowed me to continue my education and it allowed me to continue helping and coaching others," said Penner.
This is exactly why Penner would rather see the team win, over getting a chance at breaking individual records. The team is indeed reaping the benefits of his return for another season, but they could not help but poke fun at Penner, comparing him to recently retired football superstar Brett Favre.
Johnson coached Penner three of his four years on the court, and during that time they have developed a close friendship, keeping in contact during the 2009 season when Johnson was away coaching at Long Beach City College.
"Sure, it would have been great to hold onto my record," said Johnson, "but as a coach, I knew it was best for the team to have Blair come back."
Penner currently owns the school record for career service aces, and he is in the top five in sets played, assists per set, service aces per set and career assists. Considering those achievements, it is fairly shocking when Penner refers to himself as "not a big stat guy."
He said that when he is on the court all he looks to do is keep himself and his teammates accountable for consistently maintaining a high level of play.
CBU Head Coach Ryan McGuyre recognizes it in Penner's competitive intensity.
"On the floor I expect Blair to be Blair," said McGuyre. "I always expect him to bring out the best in himself and the other players."
After winning the program's seventh NAIA National Invitational Championship last season, McGuyre and the Lancers are poised to make a run at title number eight, and they're relying on their veteran setter to lead them there.
"This season is all about building something new for both Blair and the program," said McGuyre.
"Winning the championship last season was really fun because it was with a group of guys who had lost the year before," said Penner. "The way we won last year was fun, not because of one person, but because the whole team had such a high energy."
This level of fun is important to keep during the grind that is a collegiate sports season.
"One of the toughest parts of playing any sport at the collegiate level is keeping it fun and enjoying it because we play and practice so much that it really does become a job," said Penner.
As a freshman he redshirted, working out and practicing daily with the team, but relegated to street clothes as a spectator during matches. Though recruited as a setter, he played most of his freshman season as a middle blocker simply out of need.
He finally returned to his natural spot at setter during his sophomore campaign, and as his career progressed, Penner evolved into a leader both on and off the court. Johnson refers to him as a fourth or fifth coach on the court.
"He is ultra competitive and athletic on the court, and he has skills in the offensive and defensive game," said Johnson. "More importantly, though, he is the guy that everyone wants to be around. He is well respected on the court and off."
His style of quiet leadership sparked the formation of a tight brotherhood on the squad this season.
A good experience for someone who hopes to coach once his time in graduate school is completed.