Gabby Gunterman was a quality player for the Western Washington University volleyball team the moment she first stepped on the court for the Vikings in 2018.
However, she didn’t climb to the All-American level until she learned how to let go.
The Lake Stevens High School graduate just completed a banner season for Western as she was named the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Year, earned first-team NCAA Division II All-American honors, and led the Vikings to the national semifinals. And it was her willingness to loosen her grip on control that allowed her to achieve those heights.
“I’m always shocked when I get awards like that,” Gunterman said about being named the conference Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. “I never really expect myself to be in that position. It’s definitely a great feeling, but I give a lot of the glory to my team, I couldn’t do it without them.
“I’m definitely proud of the season I had,” Gunterman added. “We had to deal with a lot of hardships, and I had to challenge myself in different ways that I wasn’t always comfortable with. But we came out of it with a lot of good and I’m proud of what we did.”
Gunterman, a fifth-year junior outside hitter, has long been a standout for the Vikings. As a redshirt first-year she was a key reserve on the Western team that finished as the national runner-up in 2018, and she’s been an All-GNAC caliber performer ever since.
But this season Gunterman reached new heights as she set career highs in kills per set (3.24) while hitting an efficient .236. She also notched career bests in blocks (0.61 per set), aces (0.26) and points (3.84) while having her second-highest mark for digs (3.42). Her 1,005 attacks were nearly 200 more than she had in any previous season, indicating how much she became relied upon by a Vikings team that finished 25-5 and reached the national semifinals last weekend in Tampa, Florida.
”Gabby was fabulous this year on so many different levels,” Western coach Diane Flick-Williams said. “I know statistically and award-wise are what people see, but I thought her contributions were as much as a team leader and teammate. It was great to see her personal development this year.”
Indeed, it was Gunterman’s growth in her mental approach to the game, as well as stepping up to be the one to discuss hard truths with her teammates, that elevated her importance to the Vikings.
When Gunterman first arrived at Western she was the same springy undersized outside hitter she is today. However, when she was on the court she was inscrutable. Regardless of whether she was scoring points on every serve or shanking balls left and right, she put up the same stoic demeanor in an effort to exhibit self control, while inside she was agonizing over every little mistake.
Over time Gunterman gradually opened up, but she took her biggest step early this season. After losing at Central Washington on Sept. 23, the Vikings sat at 5-4 and looked anything but a national championship contender.
“Our last loss before the final four was at Central, and she really struggled in that match,” Flick-Williams said. “She and I had some good conversations to challenge her on how to be a little more connected with the team and she jumped right on board with it. She made it as much a part of her development as any skill in the sport.”
Gunterman had already begun revealing her true self while on the court, showing her emotions in a more animated way. After the Central match she began asking her teammates to be vulnerable and open up in a similar way.
“I learned to be unapologetically me,” Gunterman said. “If someone doesn’t like it, that’s their problem, not mine. If I want to be a leader as one of the older players on the team, I have to be OK with putting myself in uncomfortable positions. Maybe I have to talk to someone when they do something that’s not up to our standard. Before I would have shied away from those things. Now I want to take those head-on because I know the outcome will be better than what we started with.”
The team response was immediate. Gunterman went wild in the following three matches, tallying 51 kills and 49 digs in a trio of victories, and the Vikings embarked on a 20-match winning streak that resulted in GNAC and West Regional championships, followed by a three-set whitewashing of Daemen in the national quarterfinals. Western’s run finally came to an end with a four-set loss to Washburn in the semis last Friday, a match in which Gunterman led the team in kills with 11.
“It’s really exciting to go to the national championship, it’s such an experience in itself and it was really exciting just to get there,” Gunterman said. “We weren’t necessarily happy with losing, but we don’t want to minimize what we accomplished.”
Although Gunterman has spent five years in the Western program, the coronavirus pandemic meant she had junior eligibility this season. Therefore, Gunterman is coming back for one more go. So are her classmates, middle blockers Olivia Fairchild and Chloe Roetcisoender and outside hitter Tess Biscup, meaning Western will return fully intact next season.
And Gunterman has only one more thing to accomplish in her college career: winning a national championship.
“Although the season is over, it feels like we’re still working,” Gunterman said. “Before the season Diane and I talked about a two-year plan. We were a final-four team this year, so that’s a good spot to be in for a two-year plan.
“We literally have all the opportunity in the world to get what we want, which is a national championship. I’m excited to see what will happen.”