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Calm on the court: Gustafson serves as stolid leader for DSU volleyball

Dickinson State volleyball senior Shelby Gustafson has 83 kills and 23 solo blocks in the 2017 season. (Shelby Reardon / The Dickinson Press)

It's hard not to watch No. 19 at a Dickinson State volleyball match.

Senior Shelby Gustafson stands in the middle of the floor, towers over most players, and constantly motions to her teammates and yells out encouragements.

The Fargo-raised team captain has served as a consistently successful player for the Blue Hawks for four years, and has stepped up to lead the squad in her final season.

"I want to make sure that in that leadership role that I'm always doing what I'm preaching," Gustafson said. "I'm not saying one thing and doing the opposite. I'm following up my words with my actions and being accountable for myself."

The middle blocker and hitter has already had an impressive first half of the season, earning 83 kills and 23 solo blocks, on pace to best last season's 37 solo blocks.

"You can look at her and know you'll always see a calm face, not someone who's going to be panicking," sophomore and fellow captain Ellie Hanser said. "If I go and hit the ball in the net, she's going to pat me on the back and say I'll get the next one. She's always the positive person on the court."

The Blue Hawks are 4-10 overall, 2-4 against North Star Athletic Association teams, and dropped a few close matches, so staying positive can be tricky at times.

"I guess it's something that I've learned early on from my high school coach," Gustafson said. "Fake it 'til you make it. Especially with confidence. That was something she really preached on us. I just kind of keep that in the back of mind and always try to keep that calm exterior even if I am a little frantic."

Even after going to other states a few times with her West Fargo High School team, and traveling to Chicago with a club team, Gustafson nearly didn't play in college. With the encouragement of her parents, she chose Dickinson State, where she's made quite an impact.

"She just keeps getting stronger and faster and, amazingly enough, jumping higher," head coach Jen Hartman said. "You keep thinking that she reached her peak with her vertical and she keeps increasing it. We're just really proud of her and all she's accomplished so far."

Gustafson works on her vertical year-round, participating in high jump and triple jump for the track and field team in the spring. Last season, she was named a 2017 Daktronics-NAIA Scholar-Athlete and earned second place in the NSAA championship meet, with a jump 5 feet, 3 inches.

"With high jump, your approach is very similar to a slide approach in volleyball, so that's always been kind of nice," Gustafson said. "It's a commonality. When I'm working on volleyball I know it's helping me improve in track too."

After earning her degree in psychology in May, Gustafson is hoping to go to grad school for

physical therapy.

"I'm really looking at University of Mary," she said. "I'm almost done with the application process, which is a little nerve-wracking, but I'm ready to get it sent off and hopefully get an interview."

As of right now, though, she is focused on volleyball. The Blue Hawks have 12 matches left and are in the thick of conference play.

"I guess starting off it was an all or nothing (approach)," Gustafson said of her senior season. "It's your last chance to go out there and be with your teammates and play the sport that I've loved since I was a little girl. It's definitely been frustrating because we're right there on the edge. We've played in a lot of close matches. It's been frustrating we haven't come out with a win in some of them, but we're still on the rise upwards."

The team earned its first home win last week with a 3-0 sweep of Dakota State (S.D.), a team Gustafson hadn't topped in her first three years as a Blue Hawk. She led the team with five blocks and also attributed seven kills.

"I just see this strong confidence in her," Hartman said. "Even if she makes a mistake, it's not a big deal. She's able to brush that off really fast and bounce back and get a kill the very next ball. This unnerving confidence that she has right now is really helping her play to the best of her ability."