he was only in fifth grade, but something about Courtney Lee ’01 made her gym teacher, Drake Francescone, stand up and take notice.
At the time, he was building a stellar volleyball program at City Honors, a private high school in Buffalo that would win four state championships under his reign in the early 1990s. He knew talent when he saw it. And he certainly saw potential in Lee. “You’re going to be my setter one day,” Francescone told the wide-eyed fifth-grader.
|Courtney Lee ’01 sets up another Skidmore spike.
“I thought, ‘Cool, I’m going to be a center,’ ” Lee recalls. “I didn’t even know what a setter was.”
Two years later she found out, and was immediately hooked. Now, Courtney Lee is being recognized not only as the greatest setter in Skidmore volleyball history, but one of the best ever to compete at the NCAA Division III level. Among her accomplishments:
- Division III record-holder for service aces in a career, with 486
- 154 consecutive matches played—the fifth-longest streak in Division III history and a school record
- With a 3.73 grade-point-average in anthropology, named to the national 2000 Verizon Academic All-America third team
- 2000 Upstate Collegiate Athletic Association Player of the Year award, and UCAA Player of the Week three times
- Along with Laura Stanley ’04, selected to the 2000 regional all-America team, and under consideration for national honors, by the American Volleyball Coaches Association
“There’s not enough to say about what Courtney has done for us,” says Skidmore volleyball coach Hilda Arrechea. “We have many good players, but Courtney made everyone that much better. I don’t know where we would have been without her.”
Much like a quarterback in football, the setter is pivotal to a volleyball team’s success. Her job is to run the offense and, using only the tips of her fingers, send the ball high into the air and exactly into the path of a teammate’s arm so that person can spike the ball into the opponent’s side of the court. For each successful hit, the setter is credited with an assist.
It’s not easy, and not just anyone can do it. Before Lee came to Skidmore, its record for assists in a career by one player was 598. By the time Lee’s freshman year was half-over, she had broken that record (and six others). She tallied assists 5,599 times in her career, a total that ranks fourth-best in Division III history.
When it came time for Lee to decide where she was going to enroll for college, there were two choices: Canisius, a Division I school in her hometown, or Skidmore, a Division III school some six hours from home. Although Canisius offered a full scholarship, “I decided that I wanted to get out of Buffalo, so I came to Skidmore,” she says. “And it couldn’t have worked out better. I’m small [no taller than 5-foot-4], and I don’t think I could have played at the Division I level. Here I was able to do everything I wanted to do.”
As a freshman Lee was immediately handed the role of starting setter. But there simply was not an abundance of talent on that 1997 Skidmore team, which finished with a 17-20 record. “I didn’t think we were ever going to start winning,” admits Lee, who remembered thinking that her high school team would have easily beaten Skidmore in 1997. “It was frustrating. It wasn’t what I was used to. But it got better.”
It got better in a hurry. In Lee’s final three years at Skidmore, the Thoroughbreds lost just 19 matches—one fewer than they lost in her first year alone. And when Lee was a junior, Skidmore achieved two major firsts: winning the New York State Women’s Collegiate Athletic Association title and earning a berth into the Division III national tournament. This year Skidmore defended its UCAA championship and made it to nationals again.
Now that Lee’s playing days are over, she has no firm idea what her career plans are, but she knows that somehow volleyball is going to stay on her radar screen. “When I was playing, I never thought that I wanted to coach,” she says. “Now I think I probably will coach, but I’ve got to think about finding a primary job first.”
And the team will have to find a new quarterback, because for the first time since 1997, the rosy-cheeked player wearing jersey number 1 will not be running the Thoroughbreds’ offense on the volleyball court. Arrechea will be looking for a freshman next year to join the team and take over Lee’s role.
For her part, Lee believes prospective volleyball players couldn’t find a more enjoyable place to spend four years than Skidmore. “I think a lot of kids get excited about Division I for no reason,” she says. “Right now I don’t think anyone could walk into a better situation than Skidmore.”
Tim Reynolds is a staff sports writer for the Albany Times-Union.