In a way, Loyola's Ann Ernst became a volleyball star because of engineering. The Greyhound senior chose that particular sport at Whitney Young High School in Chicago because the school had an air-conditioned court.
Sports like soccer and softball, not so much.
The talented Ernst had narrowed it down to just softball and volleyball by high school, and air conditioning was a factor in her final decision.
"It's not a very exciting story, but it's true," Loyola's decorated engineering major said with a laugh.
So, somewhere along the line, the engineers who put the cool in her school impacted Ernst's future.
"Ha, I never thought of that," she said.
Ernst, who plays with a heated competitiveness, has competing passions at Loyola, where she is helping turn the volleyball program around and also studying mechanical and materials engineering.
"I came to Loyola because of the coaching staff," she said of her decision to travel halfway across the country to Baltimore. "When I met [head coach] Alija Pittenger, I was immediately impressed with her and she has not let me down in my time here."
Ernst, again perhaps befitting a future engineer, sought stability. Pittenger had come to Loyola from Fairfield, and she talked about putting down roots in Baltimore and rebuilding the program like she had at Fairfield.
"I think the Patriot League is really special," Ernst said. "It's very impressive, the focus on athletics and on academics at the same time. I feel really fortunate to go to Loyola where I can have a great degree and a really good Division I career."
The feeling is mutual. Ernst has done nothing but heap honor on Greyhound athletics. Ernst, an outside hitter, and libero Katie Forsythe were the first Loyola volleyball players to earn All-Patriot League honors last year for a program that joined the league in 2013. Ernst had 411 kills in 115 sets, averaging a career-best 3.57, which led the Patriot League. Her .192 hitting percentage was also a career high.
Additionally, Ernst was named to the Patriot League All-Academic Team with a 3.787 grade-point average. Along with majoring in engineering, she is working toward a minor in physics innovation and entrepreneurship. All the while, she's taken 19 credit hours nearly every semester.
"Her engineering class load is just insane, and you would never know," Pittenger said. "She comes into practice focused on what she's doing, 100 percent dedicated to volleyball. She does a great job just managing everything she has to do for classes and then also when she's on the court."
But Ernst's academic performance isn't an exception in Pittenger's program. All 15 volleyball players made the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll last year. The Greyhounds' 3.725 cumulative GPA was the highest in the entire athletic department and earned the squad an American Volleyball Coaches Association award.
"All of my teammates, everyone is very intelligent," Ernst said. "I'm really blessed with the family that I've made here. We inspire each other to work harder and we help each other out."
Pittenger does see a tie-in with success on the court and in the classroom.
"I think volleyball in general has those high-achieving players like Ann," Pittenger said. "The discipline that it takes to be a successful student-athlete works on the court and off the court. If you're going to be really good at something it takes that efficiency with your work, that efficiency on the court to keep getting better, also that ability to work hard."
Ernst's volleyball numbers and her success in the classroom are remarkable, and Loyola had a blueprint in place to attract students of this caliber.
"They work very hard here to make sure we're able to pick all the classes we want and not miss a beat in practice," Ernst said. "They see what classes all the athletes have that are mandatory before they make our practices times."
As part of her recruiting pitch, Pittenger asks potential players to think about how they'll fit in and what they want out of the complete college experience. Ernst said once the athletes get to Loyola, academic advisers help them set their schedules, perhaps taking a bit of a lighter load in season, though a light load for Ernst isn't really that light. She said she adapted quickly.
"Once I did it for a year, I kind of got comfortable [with] what I needed to do to balance it all. Now, it's almost easy. It has been challenging, but absolutely worth it."
Ernst comes from a family of engineers, mostly uncles and a grandfather. Her family highly recommended the pursuit.
"I was always good at math, and I enjoy the problem-solving aspect," she said. "Hopefully I can apply that one day and make the world better."
Ernst considers herself a perfectionist and thinks the pursuit of excellence on the court has helped her.
"Being an athlete my whole life has taught me very good time management skills," Ernst said. "I think the demands on our time are easier for me and for a lot of my teammates. We have to be successful."
Ernst is certainly making the Greyhounds more successful. When Pittenger took over the program in January 2015, the Greyhounds were coming off a season during which they went 2-27 overall and 0-16 in the Patriot League. In 2018, Loyola qualified for the Patriot League postseason for the first time and posted a 14-16 overall record, including a 9-7 mark in the conference.
Ernst was a key reason. She had five matches with 20 or more kills and 22 with 10 or more.
Beyond air conditioning, Ernst was always drawn to the pace of volleyball.
"There's always something happening and it's often centralized on errors, as opposed to scoring a point or a touchdown or a basket," Ernst said. "The rally won't end until someone doesn't do the job. That's a mental barrier you have to overcome. I like that challenge. It takes a lot of practice to get good at volleyball."
Ernst certainly likes a challenge. She thrives in the environment, probably because she stays cool.
Photo Credit: Brian McWalters
Issue 257: September 2019
Originally published Sept. 16, 2019