Sept. 11, 2000
by Steve Bent
When it comes to the difficult and sometimes impossible task of balancing competitive collegiate athletics with the continual challenges of academics, it is safe to say few do a better job than Notre Dame senior defensive specialist and backup setter Michelle Graham.
Graham learned her crafty skill while still in high school.
“High school provided the preparation I needed to balance academics and athletics in college,” she says.
While at Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin, Texas, Graham sported a 4.1 grade-point average and was a four-time recipient of the Austin Independent School District’s Trustee Award, presented to the top 10 percent of the class. In addition to her exceptionally high GPA, Graham competed in volleyball for four years and tennis for two. As a high school volleyball player, she was a five-year member of the Junior Volleyball Association of Austin and participated in the Junior Olympic Championships in Kansas City, Austin, Orlando and Denver. Graham was named an all-conference selection and her team won the conference championship three times, including her senior season when she was selected as the 1996 Central Texas Player of the Year and recognized as the district’s most valuable setter.
Graham’s freshman year of college took her west to the University of Oregon, where she continued to perform academically, but saw minimal time on the court as a back-up setter. She finished the 1997 season with 193 assists, 27 digs and eight blocks. At the end of the year, Graham decided to look for something different and transferred to Notre Dame.
When Graham arrived in South Bend, she immediately noticed something different on the volleyball court.
“It was weird to come to a school where the girls were actually happy to see each other,” Graham says.
“It wasn’t really like that my first season and that is why I decided to transfer.”
As a sophomore, Graham stepped onto the court at the Joyce Center, starting the last 11 matches prior to the 1998 NCAA tournament after an injury to starting Irish setter Denise Boylan.
“When I stepped in for Denise, I was excited and ready to run the team. I run a different offense than Denise does, which is sometimes faster, although I am not as accurate as she is. But I was pumped and ready to go,” Graham says.
And go is exactly what she did. Graham played in 19 matches and 53 games averaging 8.26 assists per game, in addition to finishing the season with 85 digs and 10 blocks.
As a junior, Graham continued her academic success as she won the 1999 Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award, which goes to the student-athletes with the highest GPA in their respective sports. On the court, Graham saw limited playing time with the return of Boylan. She played in only nine matches and 11 games, finishing with 61 assists and 13 digs.
This year, Graham’s final season with the Irish, she will be looked to as a leader, while playing the position of defensive specialist.
“Michelle brings experience and court savvy. She helps the other players play smarter just by talking through the rallies and telling hitters open shots. She brings a calming influence to the court,” Irish coach Debbie Brown says.
“I think Michelle plays one of the most important roles on our team,” Boylan says. “She watches everything very carefully, and over the years has picked up a lot of different things. She is a great setter but also a great defensive specialist. She knows what she is talking about when it comes to running the system.”
When asked how she feels about being switched to defensive specialist, Graham has mixed emotions.
“I have been a setter all my life. But I understand it is best for the team right now and all I want to do is help the team.”
Graham is slated to graduate in December with a degree in pre-med and sociology from the College of Arts and Letters. However, she feels there is more to accomplish before she graduates.
“Our minimum goal this year for volleyball is to make the Sweet 16 (at the NCAA tournament),” Graham says.
“That is definitely a big goal. Since I have been here, we have not won the BIG EAST regular-season and tournament title in the same year, so that is another goal.”
When Graham graduates, she plans to stick around South Bend and find a job during the second semester.
“Hopefully, I can travel a little bit in the summer and end up working with my mom (Carla) back in Austin at Merrill Lynch. We’ll see.”
Whatever Graham chooses to do, she will be successful with the skills she has learned from volleyball.
“The biggest thing with my mom’s field is that it is very competitive,” Graham says.
“You put in a lot of time and work. Having volleyball behind me will really help.”
Graham’s strong academic standing will help, too. She currently carries a 3.6 grade-point average, something many have dreamed about. There are few people who can perform well in volleyball and the classroom to the extent Graham has. Just as she will always miss the team and the University, they also will miss Michelle Graham, one of Notre Dame’s finest.