On Sept. 24, Kat Brown laid down a block in the third set to knot things up at three points apiece against UCLA.
Brown, a smile spanning the entirety of her face, clenched both fists in elation and turned back to celebrate with the rest of her teammates — who, despite Brown’s efforts, weren’t nearly as enthusiastic.
The Cal volleyball team was already down two sets to none and would go on to lose the match, 3-1, in what would turn out to be a disastrous weekend for the squad.
But you never would have guessed it based on her body language.
“I’m always really happy when I’m playing,” the middle hitter says. “I love volleyball, and I love the team.”
Many athletes express their unconditional enthusiasm for their sport, but few show it in the same way as Brown. Watching her stuff a block or spike a kill is like watching a six-year-old girl score her first ever soccer goal.
In general, there are few times that her signature grin isn’t on display for all to see — even when she isn’t playing volleyball.
“Judging by the smile that’s always there, I’d have to say she’s a pretty happy person,” coach Rich Feller says. “She is a total comedian. She keeps people loose, and on road trips, she’s a riot.”
Brown has taken it upon herself to make sure things never get too heavy, ensuring that everyone around her is laughing and smiling as much as she is.
She acknowledges her tendency to make those around her laugh — but she says it’s not always intentional.
“I make people laugh a lot, but I’m not necessarily sure they’re always actually laughing with me,” Brown says.
“Sometimes I just do stuff that’s stupid, like getting hit with the ball in the chest — that seems to happen a lot, I don’t know why. That tends to make people laugh.”
Now in her third year at Cal, Brown has blossomed into a team leader and a defensive force. She is currently fifth in Pac-12 in blocks and actually leads the conference in the country in hitting percentage at .428.
But her contributions to the team run much deeper than just the numbers she puts on the stat sheet, even if she is reluctant to admit it.
With the departure of Carli Lloyd in 2010 due to graduation, Cal lost its leader. However, Brown claims that void has been filled by lone senior Tarah Murrey and libero Robin Rostratter — two of the louder personalities on the squad — and that she hasn’t felt much pressure to step up.
Her role is rather to keep everyone’s head in the right place.
“I’m not so much of a vocal leader on the court,” Brown says. “I’m different. My way of being leader is keeping everyone in a good mood and loose.”
While she lets Rostratter and Murrey handle the vocal aspects, Brown has embraced her own leadership role on the bottom-heavy team.
One of the manifestations of her impact has been in the team’s adoption of its new mantra about riding the “Happy Train” — a brainchild of Brown and teammates Rostratter and Correy Johnson.
“We’ll be like ‘we need to ride the Happy Train and not get frustrated about little things,’” Rostratter says. “She definitely helps with that. She can put a smile on anyone’s face.”
With the Bears fielding an unusually large freshman class in 2011, Brown found herself to be a perfect candidate to make sure the newcomers were able to enjoy a smooth transition and embrace her own philosophy of positivity.
A highly inclusive group of upperclassmen helped Brown’s transition to Cal go smoothly, and she simply wanted to return the favor.
Brown’s impact could be seen after incoming freshman Michelle Neumayr tore her ACL. Brown made sure to reach out to her, from doling out emotional support during her rehab to helping her navigate Berkeley while on crutches.
“Her impact is always positive,” Feller says. “She’s one of the most liked players on the team. She doesn’t really get into the nit-picky or other things that tend to go along with groups, and she’s really easy to get along with.”
Despite her amiable demeanor, Brown is anything but easy-going when it comes to being an athlete.
“In general, she’s just a happy girl,” Brown’s mother Barbara Bird says chuckling. “It gets mistaken that she’s not competitive. But she is.”
Like any successful athlete, Brown has an intense competitive streak, even if it doesn’t manifest itself with Mike Singletary type eyes or a Kobe Bryant scowl. It’s understandable how Brown could be perceived as an indifferent athlete when she dances and makes claw gestures as the starting lineups are announced. An ear to ear grin is rarely indicative of intense focus or killer instincts.
But what makes Brown different is that, unlike many athletes, she is able to keep things in perspective and understands that, at the end of the day, volleyball is just a game.
This viewpoint can be seen in how she describes her experience playing for the national title last season.
Cal was completely dominated by Penn State for a three-set loss on national television. But for Brown, the end result is merely an insignificant smudge on an otherwise spotless memory — the experience is what really matters.
“I do wish it could have turned out differently, but I still see it in a totally positive light,” Brown says.
The end result is almost insignificant for Brown, but the “awesome” experience is what really matters.
“It’s a good attitude to have on a competitive team,” Brown says. “What we’re doing is totally serious, and it’s really important, but it’s good to not take things so seriously all the time and to be able to appreciate the opportunity we have to be here and just have fun with it.”
“We’re here because we love playing volleyball, because it’s fun.”