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Thursday, December 6, 2012
Ariel Turner has Purdue deep in tourney

By Mechelle Voepel

You've probably heard the famous baseball philosophy "Hit 'em where they ain't," which was initially credited to "Wee" Willie Keeler in the late 1800s. It applies well to other sports, too, including volleyball.

Simplistic as that sounds, it's anything but easy to actually execute. At 5 feet, 4 1/2 inches, Keeler had to use placement rather than power to accumulate his 2,932 hits. Purdue senior Ariel Turner -- who is not a wee one at 6-foot-1 and with 1,881 career kills -- has the size to be a hammering hitter. But her game is actually much more about her knack for finding open spaces on the court.

Turner will try to do that a lot Friday as the Boilermakers face Minnesota in an NCAA Sweet 16 matchup at Purdue's Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.

"She's got great vision of the game," Purdue coach Dave Shondell said. "I've never coached anybody who can hit balls where people aren't as often as she does. She's not a power hitter. There are a lot of players who hit the ball with more velocity than Ariel does. But there are few as good as her because she places the ball so well."

That makes sense: Precision is a trait you'd expect from someone who's majoring in mechanical engineering and is captivated by the Mars Rover.

"It's got a lot of great instruments on it, and it's pretty sophisticated to stuff all that into one little package," Turner said. "And how they got it to land on Mars without damaging anything on it -- that's really intriguing."

Turner has a brain naturally built for science and math, but her particular fascination with flying objects actually goes back to a middle-school class exploration in the aerodynamics of the paper airplane. Turner and her classmates also built their own little "rockets." And she found herself hooked on air and space.

"It was just a really interesting aspect of engineering to me," Turner said. "I like the exotic element of it, I guess. As opposed to building tractors or something."

Not that she has anything against farm machinery; after all, she's spent the last four years in the heart of Indiana. It took Turner a little while to get used to the flat Midwest after growing up in Colorado, but Purdue had the two things she required in a college. It's a great engineering school, and it's got a very good volleyball program.

The Boilermakers, 23-10, have never advanced to the Final Four, but they've knocked on the door. Two years ago, they faced Texas on the Longhorns' home court in the Elite Eight. Purdue made Texas work hard for that win, with then-sophomore Turner leading the way with 23 kills.

Last year, Purdue got to the Sweet 16 but lost to eventual Final Four participant Florida State. But Turner was far from her best in that match. As the 2011 season wound down, she physically was not herself, even though she was still named an AVCA first-team All-American. She was dealing with that common ailment of outside hitters: a sore shoulder.

During the spring and summer, Turner worked out but drastically limited the times she actually took swings. Even when this season got under way, Turner was still pacing herself.

Shondell trusted that she was adept at gauging how hard she needed to push her shoulder. Turner is a quiet kid, but Shondell said her mind is always humming. He knew she was thinking ahead.

"I don't think she played all that well in the first eight weeks of the season, or at least not vintage Ariel," Shondell said of a stretch that included five losses in six matches. "But her plan all along was she was going to be ready for the end of the season. When it counted, she was going to be good."

And she has been; she currently has 530 kills to lead the Boilermakers and was named to the All-Big Ten first team. Purdue went 7-3 to end the regular season. Two of those losses were to Big Ten champ Penn State, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and Nebraska, which tied for second in the league and is the No. 4 seed.

In the NCAA first round, the Boilermakers swept Colorado State. Then it was a rematch with the team that eliminated Purdue last year: Florida State. And it was played on the Seminoles' home court in Tallahassee, Fla. But the Boilermakers battled to a 3-2 victory -- Turner had 21 kills -- and earned a spot in the regional they are hosting.

"We had that in the back of our minds," Turner acknowledged of the team's "extra" motivation to make it home to the Sweet 16. "It does help to play the tough competition that we do [in the Big Ten]. We're really tested by the time we're in the tournament."

It's been a very good postseason thus far for the Big Ten; six of its seven teams in the NCAA field of 64 advanced to the regional semifinals. That includes three in West Lafayette. Penn State will face No. 16 seed Kentucky at 5 p.m. Friday, followed by Purdue against No. 8 seed Minnesota.

The Boilermakers fell to the Gophers 3-1 in Minneapolis on Oct. 20, which was the last loss of the aforementioned rough stretch for Purdue. Turner was still playing her way back into top shape then. She's there now.

Eventually, Turner hopes to work for an airplane manufacturer or maybe even at NASA. She'd like to play professionally before that. But she's still got college volleyball business to finish at Purdue.

With her performance last year, Turner was the first Boilermaker player to be named to an All-America first team since 1985. She could repeat that honor again this season.

"She's one of the program changers we've been fortunate to have come to Purdue in the 10 years I've been here," Shondell said. "She's a unique character. She's soft-spoken, a thinker, not a real socialite. It's all about volleyball and academics. She knows what she wants out of life and has a plan on how to get there."

And she hopes to help take Purdue as far as she possibly can.