HOUGHTON - Longtime Houghton volleyball coach John Christianson has seen and done a lot of things in his multi-decade coaching career, but Blaire Zenner accomplished something one of a kind for herself and the Gremlin program.
The senior signed what is believed to be the first National Letter of Intent in program history, committing her future volleyball career to Northern Michigan University.
"I'm really happy for Blaire. She has found the proper combination of being able to get an education in what she wants to do, elementary ed(ucation), and being able to continue to play the sport she's come to love, volleyball," Christianson said.
Houghton senior Blaire Zenner signs a National Letter of Intent to play volleyball at Northern Michigan University Thursday as, from left, father Mark, sister Sloane and mother Paula look on. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
Zenner established herself as a dominant middle for the Gremlins, and though her plans with the Wildcats may not be in that position, she was clearly relieved to sign with coach Dominic Yoder's program as parents Mark and Paula and younger sister Sloane looked on.
"It's a great feeling. I feel really accomplished and all my hard work really paid off and all their time, bringing me to my practices and coming to my games, it made it seem really real and great," she said.
Christianson said that Andrea Hansel of the HHS Class of 1999 went to the University of North Texas as a preferred walk-on and eventually worked her way to a major role there but that Zenner was the first Gremlin he could think of who signed an NLI to play college volleyball.
Zenner was on the Wildcats' radar early, as she was an annual participant in NMU summer camps.
Yoder said the quiet determination Zenner showed on the court made her an attractive prospect and a player he thinks the Wildcats can develop.
"With some strength development and some understanding of the speed of the college game, she can be a pretty good player for us," he said.
Though Zenner played middle in high school, the Wildcats project her more as a left-side hitter at the collegiate level.
At 5-foot-10, Zenner would be undersized in the middle at the collegiate level. However, her good lateral movement, impressive blocking talent and already demonstrated ability to attack off one foot could serve her well on the right side, Yoder said.
"She's one of those girls that just has ... I don't even know how she does it but she just kind of knows where the ball's going to go and when to jump and she's had that since 10th grade," Christianson said.
The new position will be a change, but Zenner already knows someone who made the switch within the same program: HHS English teacher and NMU and Calumet volleyball alumna Katie (Twardzik) Bonacorsi.
"I'm really excited for Blaire. Any time an athlete from our area gets to go on and play collegiate sports, it's exciting for them and the community. Dominic is a very technical coach. He's got a lot to work with and I'm sure Blaire's gonna work hard and I'm sure she'll excel at Northern," Bonacorsi said.
Zenner's signing further increases the number of U.P. players at the collegiate level, which includes Jordanna Kero (Hancock) and Andria Nyenhuis (Gladstone) at Michigan Tech. Lake Superior State also has two Yoopers on its roster.
Yoder said building the game at the grassroots level is a priority for the NMU program and that Zenner's signing is an example of that investment paying off.
"To be able to bring in a player like that believes in Northern and believes in our program, is special to our hearts," he said.