HOUGHTON - Aubrey Ficek may be the Swiss Army Knife of the Michigan Tech volleyball team.
The 5-foot-9 incoming freshman is officially listed as an outside hitter, but Tech coach Matt Jennings said her multi-tool skill set makes her a legitimate six-rotation player - she can play anywhere - and she brings a level of toughness groomed while growing up and playing volleyball on the south side of Chicago.
"I don't know exactly initially how she's going to fit in, but being so versatile, there's no doubt she's going to. That's an exciting place to be," said Jennings, who said unfortunately such a level of versatility is becoming increasingly rare due to athletes specializing earlier in their careers.
"She's going to bring a utility element to the game - she can pass, she can jump serve, she can hit out of the back row," Jennings said. "She has a crazy fast, strong arm. What she lacks in size, she has in attitude, and for us, that's OK."
Ficek played both volleyball and basketball in grade school at St. Joseph's in Lockport, Ill., but by the third grade, she fell in love with volleyball and has been set on playing the sport ever since.
She was a setter in elementary school, a middle hitter for several years, then a right-side hitter, a defensive specialist, and finally an outside hitter for most of her three years at Lockport Township High School. There, she earned consecutive all-conference and all-area awards in 2011 and 2012, including leading her 2011 team to a regional championship. That year, she tallied 327 kills, 251 digs, 39 solo blocks and 37 aces. She also played seven years as a member of UNO Volleyball Club.
"I've played every position and I really condition myself to be able to go a full six rotations," said Ficek, the only child of Carl and Eileen Ficek. "When I was growing up, I was one of the tallest players, and as time went on I became one of the shorter players.
" My size is average, but it's more on what a player can actually do, despite their size. I've worked hard to become more explosive and be smart with my shot."
While her height may not be typical of dominant hitters, Jennings believed Ficek developed a high level of tenacity while adapting her game to the tough competition she faced in Chicago.
"She's coming from one of the most competitive volleyball areas in the country, and at 5-10 at best, really 5-9, she was honorable mention all-state, or getting area recognition for taking a team with really limited talent, I think, to a high level," Jennings said. "She's competing regularly against solid Division I players and figuring out how to score. I don't think you get there without some level of toughness."
While Ficek said people tell her she's really nice off the court, her on-the-court level of focus will be visible to fans and opponents.
"People say I'm very intimidating. Apparently I have a look that scares some people," said Ficek.
The look certainly didn't scare Jennings, who sent former assistant coach Nic Paquiz down to see Ficek play after Ficek had sent her highlight video to Jennings. She eventually made two separate visits to Houghton during the summer of 2012, and fell in love with Tech - even after being on the brink of committing elsewhere.
"I considered Missouri S&T very big," she said. "I thought I was going to go there and for sure be playing there, then when I found Michigan Tech, I knew this was going to be my new home the next four years."
Tech's engineering programs were a big part of the draw for Ficek, who will be majoring in chemical engineering with a minor in Spanish. She noted the impressive level of support Tech offers to women in engineering, and she eventually wants to explore renewable energy and find alternative fuels.
Even though she's from suburban Chicago, she likes the small-town atmosphere as well, something she's familiar with having made family trips to rural Wisconsin throughout her whole life. She and her dad are big into hunting and fishing as well - fitting in well into the U.P.
Her dad has already been saving up vacation time so her parents can make it to as many Tech games as possible. It's still unknown exactly what role Ficek will play in those games, but her versatility gives Tech options. Jennings projects her to have her biggest impact in serve-receive initially, perhaps adding offense from the back row first before challenging to compete in the front row.
"She's going to have quite a bit of competition (in the front row), especially initially in her career, but if she can continue to let that push her, I think she can score in the front row for us."
Editor's note: This is the fourth and final Tech volleyball freshman feature in The Daily Mining Gazette this summer. Visit the online sports section at to find features on Kendall Ward, Rachel Pohlod and Jonna Villemure.