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Four sport phenom

Liz Brenner takes on athletic gaunlet at the UO


This is by: TIMES PHOTO: JAMIE VALDEZ - University of Oregon outside hitter Liz Brenner says she wants to play pro volleyball but loves basketball, track and field and softball as well. an era of athletic specialization where good high school athletes feel a hypothetical pressure that, if they want to be great at something, they have to choose one sport, a sole activity to stream all their time and effort into.

To compete at the highest level — it’s alleged — and earn one of the few precious college scholarships sitting out there in society, athletes have to be one kind of athlete only. Pigeonhole your athletic ability and maybe, just maybe, illustriousness will follow.

Liz Brenner never had an interest in pursuing a solitary athletic career. When Brenner was 5 years old, she wanted to be great at everything: volleyball, basketball, t-ball and racquetball. Brenner couldn’t choose just one. So, she did them all, and incredibly, excelled to the highest degree in each.

“Ever since then, I’ve loved sports and wanted to keep playing them every day,” said Liz.

As she continued her playing career and transformed into a 6’1” phenom so gifted in volleyball, basketball, softball and track and field that the former Jesuit Crusader was an all-state selection in each, the Division One coaches started calling. Again, the pressure to decide on one collegiate pursuit transpired.

You’ll never make the U.S. Olympic volleyball team if you play basketball the coaches stated.

You’re going to miss too much practice time if you play for another team, let alone two.

How can you bail on your teammates when they’re working hard during the offseason?

Brenner couldn’t decide on just one. When you’re talented, driven and well-rounded enough to prosper at each on the highest collegiate level, why not try and take on a challenge rarely, if ever, seen? Blessed with a lengthy frame that plays well in any sport and an innate cognition of athletics, there was little doubt Liz could play multiple sports in college. The question was how effective she could be shuttling from team-to-team and switching gears from season-to-season.

Some schools were hesitant in going all in with Liz, merely because they wanted her exclusively for their respective teams. University of California, Los Angeles even recruited Liz separately as a volleyball, basketball and softball player before finally realizing coaches were all courting the same girl.

In the University of Oregon, Liz found an accommodating school comparable to Jesuit in that it was willing to work with the athletic marvel and help fulfill her dream of being a three-sport star.

Safe to say the Ducks’ athletic program doesn’t regret its decision in the least.

A full slate

Liz, a sophomore at the UO, has been better than advertised. She became the school’s first underclass volleyball All-American, picked up an All-American nomination in her NCAA javelin debut with a 168-00 mark (the first time she’d thrown the javelin in two years) and was a force in the paint for the Ducks women’s basketball team despite playing just 20 regular season games. As a freshman, Liz was a catcher for the Duck softball squad but substituted hardball for the javelin this spring. If it wasn’t for her volleyball commitment in the spring, she could easily play softball and compete in track as well. She was a 2013 Sullivan Award Finalist, which honors the nation’s outstanding amateur athletes based on character, leadership and sportsmanship.by: COURTESY PHOTO: ERIC EVANS  - Former Jesuit Crusader Liz Brenner picked up an All-American nomination in her NCAA javelin debut with a 168-00 mark (the first time shed thrown the javelin in two years)

Four different teams means four various game schedules, workout plans, team agendas, and oh yeah, a full course load of classes at the UO that require hours in the library and tutoring sessions. It’s a lot to balance, a ton to manage, but since Liz has been undertaking this challenging endeavor since high school, she knows how to pilot the full slate.

When Liz was in elementary school, before she could shoot hoops with her younger brother Doug or throw the softball around with her older sister Mary Claire, their mom, Jennifer, made sure the trio sat down at the dinner table and completed all of their homework in satisfactory fashion. If their school assignments were rudimentary or missing, the penalty was not being able to go out and play. It’s a philosophy, Liz said, helped immensely in her collegiate, high-wire juggling act. A sports marketing major at the UO, Liz carries a 3.2 GPA, which she credits back to the days of grinding it out at the Brenner dinner table.

“I get everything done that I need to, before I do the fun stuff,” said Liz. “I’ve been doing this many sports for a long time now, so I’ve had good practice with time management, being organized and making sure I get everything done when I have to get it done.”

Cross training

Liz’s most abuzz time of the year is in the spring because she plays four weekends of volleyball contests with practices during the week, but she also has track meets and practice. On a typical April day, Liz will lift weights and practice with the volleyball team from 8-11 a.m., zip over to Hayward Field for track practice from 12-1:30 p.m. and then shoot to class for the rest of the afternoon. Hectic would be one way of describing these 24-hour periods, but both the volleyball and track coaches are understanding of Liz’s gifts. They want her talents on both teams and are inclined to do whatever it takes to have Liz during their respective seasons, when it matters most and wins hang in the balance.

“They understand I’m busy,” said Liz. “They know I’ve already had a practice earlier in the day and sometimes I need a break or just need to go home and sleep. It’s really nice that they’re willing to work with me.”

During the summer, Liz prepares exclusively with the volleyball team but says she trains primarily by playing the other three sports. As Liz sees it, one would have a hard time finding a better cardio workout for volleyball than playing 30 minutes of a highly contested Pac-12 women’s basketball showdown with Stanford. It takes her about a month to transition her legs from volleyball shape (jumping) to basketball (running).

“Cross training for me, personally, is what makes me so good,” said Liz. “If I played volleyball every single day, my shoulder would be so sore and falling off by now. It’s because I get a break (from volleyball) in basketball and track that I’m able to play well during volleyball.”by: COURTESY PHOTO: ERIC EVANS  - University of Oregon outside hitter Liz Brenner says she wants to play pro volleyball but loves basketball, track and field and softball as well.

To that point, Liz has never suffered from the mental and physical burnout that occasionally shows up from playing one high-level activity 300 out of the 365 days in a year. An outside hitter can only spike so many balls and block a kill before it becomes mundane. If one season goes stale or sideways, Liz can always point to the next season, the following sport as a means of motivation. Plus, except for the summer, Liz is always preparing for the bright lights of game action. There’s never a dull moment when an athlete is constantly vying in regular and postseason.

“It keeps me excited, it keeps me looking forward,” said Liz. “It’s OK basketball might be ending, but it’s fun because I have track right now.”

All-American

Liz is an All-American volleyball player who’s most likely going to play professionally overseas in two years and is a 2016 Olympic team hopeful. Volleyball is her favorite sport, and the one she pours the most time into. Recently, Liz returned from China, where she played with a group of All-Star Pac-12 players against China’s professional teams and garnered most outstanding player honors. Her efforts helped UO volleyball make the NCAA Championship game against Texas in December.

Initially, Liz was going to just focus on volleyball her freshman year, and then maybe add a spring sport her sophomore season. The overlap between basketball and volleyball was too much to overcome, it was perceived. But, it just so happened that during Liz’s freshman year, one of the Ducks’ post players broke her thumb. So, when Liz went home for Christmas break, head coach Paul Westhead called her and asked her to fill in. She obliged just before the start of Pac-12 season.

If she wanted, Liz could give up the other sports, focus solely on improving her volleyball skills for the professional ranks and a take a load of responsibility off her shoulders. No one would blame Liz if she chose to forego an athletic season or two, but she continues to contend, and keeps playing year-round.

So, what keeps her coming back? What makes her want to put in six hours of practice followed by classes and studying?

“I absolutely love competing in any sport, any time, any day,” said Liz. “I love competing and playing. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

A natural

As good as Liz is in her four D1 sports, her best athletic activity just might be racquetball. Liz fixed on the game after she grew tired of tagging along with Doug and watching him play. A natural from the jump with the hand-eye coordination of a girl three times her age, 5-year-old Liz was a prodigy. Smacking that hollow rubber ball off the wooden walls and the floors, Liz ran circles around kids first at the local level, then at the national ranks and finally the world stage. Liz won 11 world racquetball championships playing singles, doubles and mixed doubles, traveling the country and stunningly picking up titles until she was 13.

“I always tell other parents, ‘Start your kids out in racquetball’,” said Jennifer. “The ball stays in the court, it bounces right back at you. It has a high success rate with kids when they’re young...you have to have fast feet, hand-eye coordination, and it’s fun. We didn’t put Liz in that knowing this was all going to happen.”

There isn’t a day that goes by that Liz isn’t on the field or the court, playing not because she has to but because she wants to. Liz has a genuine passion for sports, being part of a team, and striving to see if she can touch her sky-high athletic ceiling.

“You can ask Liz what she did on her day off, and she’s playing sand volleyball or playing basketball at the rec center...she just loves sports,” said Jennifer.

Some of that athleticism can be traced back to a rich family tree. Both her parents were collegiate swimmers with Doug attending University of Montana and Jennifer competing for the College of St. Catherine. Liz’s grandma Nancy Brenner was a stud intramural athlete as well in the 1930s during an era when there weren’t as many girls’ sports.

Doug Brenner Jr. is a freshman offensive lineman for the Ducks. Mary Claire just recently graduated from Oregon State University, where she played softball and threw the shot put.

“The sports she’s done, she’s picked them up pretty easily,” said Doug Brenner. “She’s pretty gifted in all of those sports, and though her main love is volleyball, she was being recruited by D1 schools in each of those.”

Competitive fire

Behind Liz’s greatness is a competitive fire that was fanned early, and bordered on gung-ho bouncing around the CYO leagues in Beaverton. Liz detested losing and could never decipher why her teammates weren’t able to rise to her inimitable athletic level. Liz is a little more obliging as a Duck. But back then, Doug and Jennifer would have to pull their young tyke aside after games and conduct heart-to-hearts on what it means to be a good teammate.

“She had a hard time with that, and she would say, ‘Well we worked on that all week in practice, they should know how to do it’,” laughed Jennifer. “She had to get over that, that other girls didn’t pick things up as easily as her. Liz has always been competitive.”

Doug and Jennifer never pressured Liz into focusing one or even two sports. They were always very supportive and piled up the miles driving their youngest daughter around to all her practices. There were days during her Crusader tenure when Liz would have basketball practice for two hours, then Jennifer would pick her up with dinner and Liz’s volleyball bag in the car. Then, the two of them would drive an hour to Mount Hood Community College for club volleyball practice from 7 to 10 p.m and not get home until 11. Liz’s parents attended every one of her high school games, and now they’re present at all of her home games for every sport in Eugene.

“Last year we booked tickets early so we could use our frequent flyer miles for volleyball nationals, and it was a good decision,” said Jennifer. “It’s really fun for us. That’s basically what we do is travel and go to sporting events.”

Jesuit, Liz says, will always hold a special place in her heart. She won a volleyball state championship as a sophomore, a basketball title as a senior and won the shot put twice — once as a junior and the other as a senior. During her senior year, the Crusaders won 10 state championships as a school.

“I know it sounds cheesy, but it actually is a family with all the people you go to school with,” said Liz. “We were super good at sports so that made it fun too. That’s what I usually brag about when people ask me about Jesuit.”



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