Abbie Brown was a smalltown Iowa girl, part of a graduating class of 50. But she was also a high school volleyball star, a prime time talent who got recruited by the best college programs in the country.
Major universities flew her to their campuses and offered her scholarships. Kansas State University's coach even invited Abbie's whole high school team to a private instructional camp. Abbie liked that, and she liked Kansas State. So she enrolled there in the fall of 1996.
"The volleyball was great." Abbie says. "The highlight of my day was on the court."
Kansas State went 26-9 that season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Abbie was named runner-up for Freshman of the Year in the Big 12 Conference. But she wasn't happy.
"I started to feel like this wasn't where I was supposed to be," she says. "My teammates would ask, 'What's wrong?' And I just knew this wasn't what I wanted for my life, that there was more to life than volleyball."
Abbie almost transferred at the end of the season, and finally did leave at the end of the year. She missed her family, her boyfriend, and the intimacy of a small, close-knit community. She transferred to Central College, a non-scholarship Christian school in Pella, Iowa, where her older sister had played volleyball.
"In high school I went to my sister's games. One time, Central's coach told me, 'Know that we want you. But we're not going to recruit you, because we know you're probably not going to go here.' She was right—I never even thought about it. I knew I was a better volleyball player than Division III."
Abbie's skills hadn't diminished when she arrived at Central in 1997. The difference was her priorities: She wanted the time to explore life beyond the court, and she wanted a smalltown, family atmosphere. She got both.
Volleyball practices were now two hours, including weightlifting, instead of three hours plus lifting. And not only was Abbie closer to her parents and her boyfriend, she was on a team that emphasized more than volleyball.
"Our focus is to help these young women build relationships with each other, with their coaches, and with Christ," says Megan Clayberg, Central's coach. "That keeps things in the right perspective, because volleyball is just a game.
"We want these young women to know that they are loved and cared about, and that means more to their sense of self-worth than being an All-American or a starter."
Nonetheless, Abbie was a first-team Division III All-American her sophomore season. She helped Central to a 36-5 record and a third-place finish in the Division III tournament. And when the volleyball season ended, Abbie took advantage of another opportunity a small school can offer: cross training. She joined the basketball team, and was named second-team All-Conference.
More importantly, her faith was growing. "I honestly didn't think much about the environment when I decided on Kansas State—I knew I was a strong enough Christian that I wasn't going to do anything stupid. But I didn't end up growing at all. At Central, the Christian environment became important."
For the first time, Abbie found herself talking about her faith—comfortably, informally, with friends and teammates. Her Christian faith became something wonderful and powerful to share, instead of a list of sins to avoid.
"I wanted to know more about God," Abbie says, "and at Central, I had time to pray more, to read more, and chances to talk about Jesus and my relationship with him, to try to dig deeper." Abbie also became active in her volleyball team's Bible study. "It was a strong environment where I could learn and grow. I didn't know our faith would be the team's main focus."
Coach Clayberg adds, "I think this is what Abbie needed, honestly. I think most young Christians need this kind of environment."