Purdue volley

Purdue volleyball player Grace Cleveland is thriving in her role as the Boilers’ right-side hitter.

WEST LAFAYETTE — Their banners hang from the rafters of Holloway Gymnasium.

Sherridan Atkinson. Danielle Cuttino. Ariel Turner. Stephanie Lynch. Marianne Smith. All five were first-team All-Americans for Purdue volleyball.

Could sophomore Grace Cleveland join that elite group before her Boilermaker career ends?

“I think she can be as good as any player we’ve ever had,” Purdue coach Dave Shondell said.

Like Cuttino and Lynch, Cleveland also wears No. 20 and would like to add her number to the row of banners.

“It’s always motivation to see that up there but I take it one day at a time,” said Cleveland, who continued her run of strong play Wednesday night with 12 kills and five blocks in Purdue’s 25-16, 25-12, 25-20 sweep of rival Indiana.

The victory against the Hoosiers was Cleveland’s first match since earning Big Ten Conference Player of the Week honors on Monday. The 6-foot-3 right-side hitter accumulated 31 kills and a team-best .431 hitting percentage in 16th-ranked Purdue’s victories against Iowa and No. 5 Nebraska this past weekend.

The honor was her second of the season and notable in that Cleveland is just one of several hitting options for the Boilermakers (15-5). Junior Caitlyn Newton led Purdue with 15 kills against Indiana. Freshman Emma Ellis had seven and Blake Mohler, one of two seniors on the Boilermaker roster, notched five on .571 hitting.

Cleveland and Newton combined for 14 kills in a dominating Game 2 hitting performance for Purdue, which hit .389 for the match after recording just seven kills in Game 1.

“When you get the three-headed hydra — which is Newton, Cleveland and Mohler — playing well everyone else just chips in,” Shondell said. “It’s just like a basketball team. If you’ve got just one or two people and they don’t play well, or teams figure out how to defend them, you get beat.”

That balance lessens pressure on Cleveland, who is thriving at her third position in as many seasons. Cleveland was ranked the No. 13 recruit in the nation by PrepVolleyball as a middle hitter out of Normal Community High School in Bloomington, Illinois.

The Boilermakers were loaded at middle hitter during her freshman season but Cleveland was too good not to have in the lineup. Playing left-side hitter, Cleveland was fourth on the team with 306 kills and ranked second with 100 blocks.

With Atkinson now playing professionally in Turkey, Shondell decided to move Cleveland to right side hitter.

“She’s still learning that position,” Shondell said. “She’s still learning to hit from the right side of the floor vs. the left and the middle. What’s she’s learned in those other spots helps her over there. She gets better and better all the time.”

That improvement on the court has come as Cleveland’s confidence grows in her new position. When Indiana closed within 22-20 in Game 3, her teammates had enough confidence in Cleveland to set up two consecutive kills that halted the Hoosiers’ momentum.

“I think for me it’s hitting more shots and getting more comfortable on hitting different shots and not just the one I’m good at,” Cleveland said. “I’m focusing on the game more, improving my volleyball IQ.”

Like so many talented athletes, Cleveland has high expectations for herself. Sometimes, those expectations weigh down the high-jumping sophomore.

“Sometimes she feels like she disappoints the team and that hurts her,” Shondell said. “When she is confident and relaxed she’s really good.”

As much as Cleveland enjoys knocking down the big kill, she has a bond with Mohler at the net. The duo frustrated Indiana several times with their double-team blocks.

“I blocked with her a lot last year and we always say our hands touch when we block,” Cleveland said.

The Boilermakers have a shot at another victory over a Top 10 foe Sunday, when sixth-ranked Minnesota comes into Holloway Gymnasium for a match that will be on ESPN2. The Gophers swept Purdue in Minneapolis a month ago. The Boilermakers are 7-2 since then.

“We know what we can do,” Cleveland said. “We’re building and growing off every win. It’s exciting. I also think we can’t overlook anyone. Just one game at a time.”

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