If you were to take a picture of Lillian Schonewise, you wouldn’t have to tell her to smile. Most likely, she already is. Having a smile on her face is her default setting — she’s a genuinely happy person.
And why wouldn’t she be? As Schonewise describes it, “Things are good. It’s been hard but rewarding.”
For those who haven’t been around her, Lillian Schonewise seems to be having a breakout season. She’s leading the team in blocking, is second in kills, has a .339 hitting percentage and has stepped into her new role as captain as if she had been doing it all along.
But for her teammates and those who know her best, the redshirt junior has been an integral part of the team for more than three years.
Schonewise grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and, thanks to her mom, she spent most of her childhood in the volleyball gym. From an early age, Schonewise was exposed to competitive volleyball. Her mother was a star player at the University of Nebraska and the head coach at Kansas University from 1994 to 1997. Her aunt Enid Schonewise was also a Huskers standout.
Karen Schonewise, then Dahlgren, is a name almost everyone knows in the college volleyball world. The two-time All American had one of the most memorable careers at the University of Nebraska, leading the Huskers to eventually retire her jersey. Being named All-Conference four years in a row and leading the team for three years in hitting percentage, the middle blocker revolutionized college volleyball. Karen is credited with being the first ever college player to run the slide play: when the middle blocker fakes a step towards the middle and makes a quick shift to the outside for an attack. The steps are similar to that of a layup in basketball.
Playing the same position her mom did, Schonewise can often be seen implementing the slide play. But techniques are not the only thing Schonewise picked up from her mom.
“I just couldn’t help but love (volleyball),” Schonewise says. “I just kind of fell into it. I was blessed with the genes from my mother, and I just fell in love with the sport. I can’t ever imagine not playing.”
Before Schonewise’s senior year of high school, the Schonewise family packed up and moved from Kansas to Omaha, Nebraska. Lillian and her sister Olivia were big news in the community when they decided to attend Papillion-La Vista High School, where their aunt Enid was the principal.
The Schonewise sisters were already an established name in the volleyball world, with Lillian committed to UC Berkeley and her sister, then a sophomore, being heavily recruited as well. The media went on about the sisters being added to the already-impressive roster of the school, and they lived up to the hype. In Lillian’s senior year, the team won the state championship and then went on to win the national championship.
After redshirting her sophomore year due to a shoulder injury, Schonewise returned to the team last season as the new starting middle blocker, averaging 2.13 kills per set. She traveled to China with the Pac-12 All-Star Team this past summer and joined the Cal volleyball team on its trip to Europe, where she really stood out. Schonewise’s natural leadership was on display as she took over the team from the departed seniors of last season. But even without the title of captain last season, Schonewise’s influence was widespread throughout the team.
Case in point: the Rubik’s cube.
Last fall, Schonewise and a couple of teammates took the Speedcubing DeCal available on campus that teaches students how to solve a Rubik’s cube in less than a minute. The DeCal, unfortunately, was only available right in the heart of conference play. Schonewise and some of her teammates missed the class every other week due to their traveling schedule. With such little free time available to them, it meant practicing on the bus rides to and from the games. Eventually, it caught on, and the whole team got involved.
“We were in season, so every road trip, we were Rubik’s cubing,” Schonewise said of the epidemic. “By the end, I think we taught the entire team how to solve a Rubik’s cube. It was hilarious.”
For those around her, Schonewise has always been there, working behind the scenes. Despite her success this year, to her teammates, her work is something that has already been on display. Now, it just seems as though the rest of the world is figuring it out.
When Schonewise arrived at UC Berkeley, she was introduced to a squad that had just come off the winningest season in Cal volleyball history. The 2010 team had advanced to Cal volleyball’s first ever NCAA title match and was only losing two seniors. There were older, more experienced middle blockers, and Lillian played in only 41 sets her freshman season.
“She was one of those people who made our older middles better because she was working so hard,” says teammate Marlee Davis. “She’s always been an all-star and one of the huge offensive weapons on the team.”
Schonewise’s captaincy has thrust her into the spotlight this year, especially with so many new players. With a handful of freshmen at the Bears’ disposal, the captain’s position is essential in helping the underclassmen adjust to the fast pace of the collegiate level — and Schonewise is just the person to do it.
With her good work ethic and all-around joyful personality, it’s hard not to stay positive when around her.
“She’s inspirational,” Davis says. “She’s a very good leader in the sense that you can look at her and she kind of calms the water. Lillian is capable of looking happy, even though she’s her toughest critic. She leads by example on how to hold yourself as a student-athlete.”
Being a student-athlete is not just a large time commitment — it’s all-consuming. The “normal” college experience most kids crave — the one with no curfew, late-night parties and carefree attitudes — is not one with which Schonewise identifies. But she is used to it, and she wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I don’t even know what’s normal,” Schonewise says. “Definitely, it’s hard, but we also get a lot of things that other students don’t, such as this tight-knit team that’s practically a family and all of these fun experiences, such as traveling and winning.”
Schonewise is majoring in American studies with a focus on gender and policy socializations. As for what comes next for her, it’s up in the air. Due to her redshirt season, she still has this season and next to be a part of Cal volleyball. With her family legacy, it seems that playing professional volleyball in Europe is definitely an option. But just like it was when she left the Midwest for college, the choice to pursue volleyball professionally is completely in her hands.
“It’s her life, her decision,” Karen says. “A lot of people ask why didn’t we encourage her to be closer to home. It’s because we want her to live her dream, not our dream. It’s her life, and she has to live it. That’s what we really wanted (for our kids): to find whatever passion it is and go with it.”
After Schonewise leaves UC Berkeley, the world will be laying in wait, again, until she resurfaces, making herself known to the public. Until then, she will go on her way, living her life the way she always has: genuinely happy.
After all, says Schonewise, “What’s not to be happy about?”
Alicia Fong covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]