The grind of a college athlete is one that can only be understood by experiencing it.
Linden Firethorne, a 2012 graduate of South Whidbey High School and senior outside hitter for Central Washington University’s volleyball team, knows this truth better than most.
Whether it be the 6 a.m. workouts during the winter or the countless flights across the country while juggling school and other priorities, Firethorne admitted there were times where she felt she was in over her head.
But, she wouldn’t trade it for the experience she’s had.
Firethorne’s standout career with the Wildcats is coming to a close after four seasons as an outside hitter for the program. She currently ranks in the top 20 in eight different statistical categories in Central’s history, while lettering all four seasons. She saw ample game action as a true freshman and became a key contributor during her sophomore year and onward. She also helped her team advance to the NCAA Division II volleyball tournament the past three seasons, and hopes to accomplish that same feat this year.
The Wildcats are currently 19-7 overall and fourth in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference with a 15 wins and four losses.
Wildcats head volleyball coach Mario Andaya said Firethorne came into this season as a leader, after having a breakout year in 2014 where she led the Wildcats in kills (355) and points (383). Despite being keyed on by opposing defenders, Firethorne has still made her impact felt this season. She’s currently third in the conference with 359 kills.
“This year, she’s really stepped up her game in a lot of ways, not only offensively but she’s one of the top blockers in the conference too for her position,” Andaya said. “And just how hard she works everyday in practice has really set the tone for a lot of our players, including the kids that are working underneath her.”
Firethorne will play in front of her home crowd for the final time against Montana State University-Billings at Nicholson Pavilion at 7 p.m. on Nov. 25.
She’s been trying not to ask herself the question, “Where does the time go?” but when it arises, she can’t stop the emotions that come with it.
“It’s really sad, I’m getting nostalgic,” Firethorne said. “I don’t feel that old. One of my friends texted me the other day and said I remember when you were a freshman!”
“It’s a new part of life that I’m moving into,” she added.
At South Whidbey, Firethorne was a four-year letter winner for the Falcons and first-team all-Cascade Conference her junior and senior years. She currently holds school records for most career kills and kills in a match (28).
“I’m so proud of her. She is such a good girl and such a good person and loves the sport,” said Falcon head volleyball coach Mandy Jones.
“In my eyes, she’s a true volleyball player, somebody who puts in the time and effort and has the passion for it.”
Firethorne signed her letter of intent for the Wildcats in November 2011. She said she already felt the level of team camaraderie before arriving on campus, which was among the many reasons she felt the program was the right fit for her.
“The players, coaches and the coaching staff were just incredible and I felt like I was part of the team before I even got here,” Firethorne said. “Even all the administrators, they’re all just trying to help you with classes and schedules. The older you get, the more time conflicts you have. Everyone wants you to be successful not only on the court but in the classroom too and they really try to help you.”
Firethorne said that the Wildcats’ 3-1 win over arch- rival Western Washington University on Oct. 24 in Bellingham was one of the top highlights of her career.
Up until Oct. 24, the Wildcats had beaten every team in the conference on their home courts except for the Vikings. Firethorne finished with 18 kills and two aces in the match. It was a pivotal moment for the team, she said.
“It just showed how much this team has grown and it was pretty awesome,” Firethorne said.
Firethorne said it was a surreal moment when she and four other seniors took the helm as the leaders on the team. She said her leadership skills consist of leading by example, as opposed to being a vocal leader like teammate and fellow senior Catie Fry. Her methods have worked, Andaya said.
“The leadership role has really made an impact, I think,” Andaya said. “She’s having a great year.”
In her time at Central, Firethorne has traveled across the country. Her team makes regular trips to Alaska to play conference opponents Alaska University and Alaska Anchorage. She’s also traveled to Hawaii, Arizona, Minnesota, California and Oregon.
“I think all the experiences are good with your 20 best friends,” Firethorne said of traveling with her teammates. “Even the hard parts, you figure it out and get through it together.”
After graduation in the spring, Firethorne plans to student teach in the fall of 2016. After that, she hopes to teach somewhere on the west side.
“I think it’s been really great,” Firethorne said. “I think the last couple years have been good.”
“Playing the game, that’s what’s most fun. It makes all the practices and 6 a.m. workouts really worth it,” she added.