Annika Schwartz's fierce, competitive spirit has helped the Stevenson University women's volleyball team to Commonwealth Conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances during each of the past three years.
Off the court, her compassionate nature will have a major impact on the lives of those she serves following her volleyball career.
With Schwartz leading the way, Stevenson is off to its best start since the 2014 team won 16 of its first 17 matches. The Mustangs will take a 12-1 record into their Sept. 23 tri-match against Catholic and St. Mary's (Md.) at Stevenson's Owings Mills, Md., Gymnasium.
The 5-foot-10 senior outside hitter has continued to prove why she is one of the best players in Stevenson history. A three-time All-American, the Damascus, Md., native leads the squad with 125 kills and ranks third with 120 digs.
"Annika wants to make the big play, and she's done that from her freshman year," said Dave Trumbo, who is in his 11th year as head coach at Stevenson. "When the score gets to 20, we know we need to get her the ball. She grades out as our top server, and is one of our top passers, too."
In her final year at Stevenson, Schwartz is preparing for her next chapter. A nursing major, she worked at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center during the summer of 2017.
Two years earlier, Schwartz and her mother, Jane, went on a week-long medical mission to a remote area of Nicaragua.
"The clinic that we worked in saw a few hundred people a day," Schwartz said. "Many of the kids had never seen a doctor in their lives. We treated people who had been dealing with migraines their whole lives and had never taken medication for it. These were people who were thinking day-to-day how they were going to get their food."
The Nicaraguan experience altered Schwartz's world view. For her clinical nursing class, Schwartz is working at Health Care for the Homeless in West Baltimore.
"I requested to work with the homeless population," Schwartz said. "One of the first questions we have to ask is, 'Where did you sleep last night?' It's been important to see where other people come from, and how we can make the situation better for them."
Before she came to Stevenson, Schwartz was a standout at Damascus High School. During her senior year there, she earned second-team All-State honors while helping the Hornets to the Maryland Class 3A state championship. Schwartz was also a member of Damascus' coed volleyball team, which earned Montgomery County titles in 2012 and 2013.
"I could never talk highly enough about coed volleyball," Schwartz said. "My defense got a lot better because I was up against guys who were 6-[foot]-7 or 6-[foot]-8 and could really crush the ball. In that case, your reaction time gets so much better."
Schwartz made an impact during her freshman season at Stevenson, capturing American Volleyball Coaches Association Honorable Mention All-America recognition and earning the Commonwealth Conference's Rookie of the Year and AVCA Mid-Atlantic Region's Freshman of the Year honors.
As a sophomore, Schwartz repeated as an AVCA Honorable Mention All-America selection and AVCA Mid-Atlantic Region first-team member after leading the Mustangs with 423 kills. Schwartz continued to raise her game during her junior season, earning AVCA second-team All-America honors after leading the Mustangs in kills (438) and service aces (57).
A team captain this season, Schwartz combines her considerable volleyball skills with a serious on-court demeanor.
"Annika is more vocal than she used to be," Trumbo said. "She has evolved into the type of leader that can get other players fired up."
Schwartz also benefited from playing beach volleyball, which became a varsity sport at Stevenson during the spring of 2016.
"I was learning new shots that can work in the indoor game," Schwartz said. "And [beach volleyball] also helped me see the court much better."
This season, Stevenson has earned sweeps at Salisbury's Sea Gull Classic and Muhlenberg's Buttermaker Tournament. Competing in a field of four 2016 NCAA Tournament teams at the Sept. 15-16 Hampton Inn River Hawk Classic, Stevenson extended its season-opening run with victories against host Susquehanna and SUNY Brockport before being swept by 16th-ranked Carnegie Mellon.
Since joining the league for the 2012 season, the Mustangs have earned five consecutive Commonwealth Conference titles and the Commonwealth's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. Schwartz was a freshman on the 2014 Stevenson squad that advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and she sees similarities between that Mustangs squad and the current one.
"We have a young team this year, much like we did in my first year," Schwartz said. "We've had a lot of freshmen come into the program the last couple of years who have earned playing time, and that same thing happened back then, too. The difference this year is that we've been playing a lot of difficult teams early this season, which is making our team that much better."
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