Ducks' Liz Brenner a multisport force
LOUISVILLE, Ky -- When she was in grade school, Oregon sophomore Liz Brenner used to hang out at the football field before she went to volleyball practice. She'd show off her throwing arm -- the one that will propel shot puts and javelins for the Ducks' track team this spring -- to the boys on the football team.
"Oh, I really, really wanted to play football," Brenner said. "But my parents wouldn't let me. They were afraid I'd get hurt."
Um … they were afraid for her? Seriously?
"Yeah, I know," Brenner said, grinning. "I was bigger than most of the boys."
And just as tough, strong and competitive -- if not more so. But, alas, football would have to be one of the very few sports that Brenner didn't pursue. She is an athletic multitasker on an elite scale.
A 6-foot-1 outside hitter from Portland, Ore., Brenner has been a huge factor in the Oregon women's volleyball's dream season thus far. The Ducks are in their first final four and will meet five-time champion Penn State in a national semifinal on Thursday.
Brenner, who has 436 kills and 285 digs, was named an AVCA second-team All-American on Wednesday. But her athletic school year is far from over. Once volleyball season ends, she'll take about a week off, then join the Oregon women's basketball team, just as she did last year.
Once basketball season ends, she'll take another week off, then join the track and field team. She didn't do that last year; instead, her spring sport as a freshman was softball, with which she saw action in five games.
Yeah, that's one kid who's competed (or soon will) in four different Division I sports. The only part of all this that she really struggles with is the week she takes off to supposedly rest between seasons.
"It's torture, actually," Brenner said of those "idle" few days. "I'm so bored."
Brenner is playing collegiately not far from home. That's a plus, but the main reason she chose Oregon was that the coaches there were OK with her pursuing multiple sports.
A few decades ago, that wasn't as uncommon in college athletics. Now, it's not quite like being a unicorn … but it's become pretty rare.
"I think we [coaches] get caught up so much in the idea that we're going to control everything they do," Oregon volleyball coach Jim Moore said. "I want them to have the college experience, and for Liz, that means other sports. And I think it makes her a better volleyball player.
"For one thing, you get away from volleyball a little, which isn't bad. People ask why she is such a good serve-receiver, and it's because she's such a good, well-rounded athlete."
There have been some very prominent collegiate women's volleyball players in the past who also excelled at basketball. Among them, UCLA's Natalie Williams, Stanford's Kristin Folkl and Lindsey Yamasaki and Nebraska's Greichaly Cepero.
But Brenner adds the complicating twist of two additional sports at the college level (although not all four in the same year). She did the four sports at Jesuit High in suburban Portland, plus was a standout racquetball player growing up.
And if you think you'd want to face her in any card or board games, you really should reconsider that. She goes for the jugular there, too.
Moore thinks the emotional ups and downs Brenner experiences in her various endeavors all weave together to make her an even stronger competitor. She'll leave a volleyball team that has reached the final four for a hoops team that really needs a boost; the Ducks are 0-8.
"What we hope to do with athletes is create character," Moore said. "The more you learn and grow, the bigger person you can become. And the better you are going to be at everything in life."
True -- most people don't need to be quite this busy to build character. After all, Brenner also has her academics to ace, too. But the athletic whirlwind works for her because she loves all the sports and is such a quick study in them.
If Oregon women's basketball coach Paul Westhead wants her to pick up a new post move, he doesn't have to drill it into her head over and over in multiple practices. Show it to her, let her work on it for a couple of minutes and it sticks.
Ultimately, volleyball probably is her favorite sport, with its lightning-quick pace. But the former football wannabe relishes the physicality of basketball, too.
"My first basketball game last year, I got T'd up for being a little too physical. I didn't mean to," Brenner said, amused at the memory of that inadvertent technical in a December victory over Cal State Northridge. "It was pretty surprising to me, but it was an interesting experience."
Brenner played in 21 basketball games last season, starting eight, and averaged 5.8 points and 5.8 rebounds as a forward. This volleyball season will end either Thursday or Saturday here in Louisville. She doesn't expect to be ready for the Ducks' Dec. 21 basketball game in her hometown of Portland. So that means her first hoops action this season will be Dec. 31 …
"Against UConn," Brenner said, with another big grin.
Oh, good, an easy one. Just the seven-time NCAA champion Huskies -- what a way to dive back into hoops. But it fits with Brenner's personality. How many people could play against premier programs in volleyball (Penn State) and basketball (Connecticut) in the same month?
As for track and field, Brenner is eager to do that at the college level. One of her high school classmates was the daughter of Olympic gold medalist Mac Wilkins, the discus thrower who also competed at Oregon.
"He started talking to me from my freshman year [of high school]," Brenner said. "He said, 'You could be an amazing thrower with the strength you have.' I decided to try that my junior and senior years, and went to him and took some lessons. It worked out pretty well."
Brenner hopes to someday go pro in at least one of her sports, likely either volleyball or track. But since she's just in her second year of college, she's focused on bringing as much success to Ducks athletics as possible.
And while she can't help the Oregon football team, another Brenner will. Her younger brother, Doug, is a high school senior who has committed to play on the offensive line for the Ducks.
Hey, Liz can't do everything.