Three weeks after deciding to transfer to Florida, Brynja Rodgers packed everything she had in a U-Haul trailer, hooked it to the back of her 1998 Toyota Camry and drove across the country on her own.
Brynja arrived at UF during the first week of August following two years at New Mexico State to take an opportunity she viewed as simply too good to pass up.
The chance to play for Florida, a nationally recognized volleyball program with 18 straight Southeastern Conference Championships to its credit, was a dream come true. That's not to say it wasn't tough leaving the comfortable relationships she had worked to establish in Las Cruces, N.M., some 1,400 miles away from her hometown of Iowa City, Iowa.
"For two years, I made very deep connections with the people in New Mexico. I figured that I would always have those connections with those people, I would always be in a close relationship with my friends back there," Brynja said. "If I can do that with those people in two years, let's go to Florida, let's take everything you own, just go to Florida and make brand new connections with some other brand new people."
The more than 1,600-mile drive from Las Cruces to Gainesville gave Brynja plenty of time to think about the life she was leaving behind, the new one awaiting her at UF and the series of events that took her from one to the other.
The Telephone Game
Had Cindy Bathelt, the Gators' starting setter last season, not decided to transfer to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in June, Brynja could have been taking the court for the Aggies this year.
With Florida's 2008 assists leader on her way out, UF coach Mary Wise had to pursue an immediate substitute to keep her team's 6-2 offense running. Given the prestige of the Florida program and the quick learning process the setter would have to undergo, Wise had a right to be selective.
"Sometimes in coaching, you just have to be a little lucky, and in June, when we found out that Cindy Bathelt wasn't returning, we thought the luck had run out," Wise said. "But Brynja's situation, looking to play somewhere else, all of the stars lined up and fell into place."
Brynja didn't exactly come calling to Wise. Finding her came as a result of the UF coaching staff's exhaustive search, some fortunate connections and a lot of time on the phone.
Wise spoke with her fellow volleyball coaches and friends, asking if they knew of any available setters who would fill the hole at UF. Fortunately, the needle-in-the-haystack scenario played out perfectly, as Brynja had run the 6-2 at NMSU.
One thing stood in the way, though: Brynja wasn't considering transferring. At least she didn't know she was.
Kyla Rodgers, Brynja's mother, was on the phone with John Tawa of PrepVolleyball.com, discussing the Iowa Rockets club she and her husband run, when she brought up her daughter. Brynja loved everything about the Aggies and Las Cruces - and she was content at the time to remain there. But she wasn't on scholarship, and the financial strain was becoming something of an issue for her family.
"She was the only one on her team there for Thanksgiving, because she couldn't afford to go home when she went to New Mexico State," Kyla said. "She knew it. She knew what was going on."
Kyla told Tawa that Brynja was available, and Tawa relayed that information when UF assistant coach Ken Ko contacted him.
Looking to learn more about Brynja, Wise went to Iowa's Sharon Dingman, who coaches players from the Rodgers' club.
Wise then got in touch with NMSU coach Mike Jordan, who spoke to Brynja about the offer.
"His first question was, 'Brynja, do you know who Mary Wise is?'" Brynja said. "And I was like, 'Coach, who doesn't know who Mary Wise is?'"
Making the Call
In direct contrast to the long, winding road that led Wise to her newest player, Brynja only had to make a few calls once her future coach gave her the opportunity to play at UF.
She called her parents, unsure of what to do. NMSU had become her home away from home, but UF had everything she wanted. She would be a scholarship student-athlete on a nationally recognized team with a chance to make an NCAA Tournament run.
"David and I both said, 'Brynja, you weigh the pros and cons. You make the decision,'" Kyla said. "She called us back, I think a day later, and said, 'I've decided to go to Florida.'"
Despite the strain of not being on scholarship at NMSU, her parents told Brynja to make the decision independent of financial concerns. When she called David and Kyla, Brynja had made the list of pros and cons without money, but the decision remained the same.
"She said Florida simply wins," Kyla said.
A number of the factors in the Gators' favor were related to Wise: her reputation as a highly respected female coach, her enthusiasm for and knowledge of setting, the nine All-America setters she has coached, the seven Final Four appearances in the last 18 years under Wise and, most importantly, the way she dealt with Brynja when they spoke.
"If the switch wasn't going to make me happy, then she was going to forget all about it and let me be happy at New Mexico State," Brynja said. "Because she took the time to evaluate my situation and put herself in my shoes, I think that showed some great character, and it really helped me decide that this was going to be a great place to play."
Less than a month after the offer, Brynja called Wise to say she would become a Gator. She finished the summer semester at NMSU and drove to Gainesville on her own, joining a Florida squad of 14 players who spent the summer together on campus.
"That's so Brynja right there, just to drive across the country by herself - really independent, really self-sufficient," junior Lauren Bledsoe said. "She's been really positive about it. That is a really hard thing to do - to leave everything you know and come somewhere new."
The downtime was so minimal that Brynja hadn't even unpacked her U-Haul before she was working with UF's training staff.
"I think the transition has been very hard for her, and I don't think anyone will see it," Kyla said. "I don't think she'll show it. She just won't. She's very tough."
Despite the quick turnaround, she found instant success on the court. Brynja led the team in assists in the first two matches of the season and served a fifth-set, match-winning ace against Florida State in the third.
She credited her teammates for helping her cope with the immediate transition to a new school, a new team and a new life.
"They - as well as Mary - took the time to understand that I was brand-new, I had just gotten here, I had made this decision literally three weeks ago," Brynja said. "It was rushed, but it wasn't bad by any means. I think they did a good job of welcoming me."
Set to Coach
Although she relied on her teammates and friends to help her acclimate to UF, Brynja has had no trouble feeling at home on the court.
Whether it's before the serve, during play or after the point, she has proven herself to be one of the Gators' most vocal players despite being the newest addition to the team.
Brynja said she talks more while playing than she ever does off the court, but Bledsoe, her roommate, chalked that up to just how talkative she can be during a match.
"It's something we really need, so it kind of fits perfectly," Bledsoe said. "It really helps as far as leadership on the court."
Given the leadership role she has taken on the court, her position as a setter and her family's background in coaching, it's no surprise Wise sees Brynja as a future coach.
"I can envision it. I just can't wait until she envisions it," Wise said. "She would be a terrific coach. Her respect for the game, how much she loves to play - she would have the ability to transcend that to younger players. I really hope she goes into coaching."
Add in the fact that Brynja has been helping her parents coach their club since she was in high school, and her mother also views it as an inevitability.
"I know she's a coach, and I know that she's good at it," Kyla said. "She'll find it on her own. She'll come to the realization that she can't live without volleyball and that she has to coach."
Although Brynja is considering entering the field of dentistry after college, she acknowledged her passion for coaching as well as her family's background in volleyball.
"It's definitely something I love to do," Brynja said. "I like watching young children figure out how to play the sport. I know I had to do it at one time."
Already an upperclassman and one of the team's most vocal players, Brynja seems primed to take another step toward becoming a coach next season, as she will be one of four seniors responsible for leading a talented nucleus of underclassmen.
"I love the fact that this team is young. I love it," she said. "Not just because I'm one of the oldest ones - and I am very nearly the oldest one. The younger girls show incredible potential.
"The places we can go if everyone keeps getting better - it's through the roof."
Wherever the team may go, Brynja has already shown a willingness to take whatever path put before her - even if it's a 1,600-mile drive from Las Cruces to Gainesville.