Junior Liz VanderSlice lovingly wrapped a Swiss-made NCAA Championships watch around her left wrist before embarking on another title quest with the Hope College volleyball team.
Chris VanderSlice ’99, her late father and former Flying Dutchmen basketball captain, remains close to her no matter where she travels.
This week, Liz is in Claremont, California, outside of Los Angeles, to compete at the NCAA Division III Championships hosted by Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. It is Liz’s second consecutive trip to the national quarterfinals and her first as a starting outside hitter.
Led by head coach Becky Schmidt, the second-ranked Flying Dutch (30-2) face ninth-ranked Johns Hopkins, Md., University (28-4) on Wednesday, Nov. 29, at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. The match will be streamed on ncaa.com. The winner advances to the national semifinals on Thursday, Nov. 30.
Twenty-five years ago, Chris helped Hope finish national runner-up on the basketball court for the second time in three seasons. He also was a member of the 1996 team that was national runner-up.
“My mom and my sister, we have his two [NCAA Championships] watches. I have this one; it’s a good luck charm,” Liz said of the gold-trimmed, white timepiece with a black band.
Six years ago on October 28, Chris died at the age of 40 following a four-year battle with cancer. The well-liked and well-respected administrator and teacher for Grandville Public Schools was survived by his wife, Tonya, and their daughters, Hannah and Liz.
While memories of his difficult and long fight against cancer and his physical absence today understandably still are painful at times, Liz said she and her family still take inspiration from him.
“If I have a bad game or if Coach tells me to make a correction in practice, I catch myself sometimes saying ‘I can’t’,” Liz said. “Instead, I’m like, I’m not going to think like that; that’s just ingrained in me. He said, ‘You can always find a way to do something.’ I’ve always had an attitude, just like how my dad raised us in our family like no one’s going to tell me what I can and can’t do.
“Not that Coach ever set expectations like that early on, but I was like ‘I’m not going to let someone tell me I can’t play because I know I can,” Liz said. “When I put my mind to something, usually I can make it happen. I have a confidence in my ability.”
Liz was not invited to play volleyball when she enrolled at Hope after being a three-sport athlete at Grandville High School. She instead joined the track and field team as a freshman.
A year later, Liz visited Coach Schmidt coincidentally on the same day that a roster spot unexpectedly opened up. Liz jumped at the opportunity to play volleyball for the Flying Dutch. She saw limited action as a sophomore, appearing in four matches, for the 2022 Hope team that advanced to the national quarterfinals for the fourth time in program history.
Not satisfied with just being on the team, Liz continued to sharpen her game during spring practice and drew the attention of Hope’s coaching staff.
This season, Liz has blossomed into a full-time regular on the court after an injury to teammate Annie Lockett — a returning honorable-mention All-American, too — opened playing time on the right side.
Supported by extended family, including her mom and sister, Liz has appeared in all 32 games for the Flying Dutch. The 5-10 biomedical/bioelectrical engineering major and future medical salesperson is averaging 1.90 kills per set and ranks fifth on the team.
It is a similar path as Chris, who saw limited action during the Flying Dutchmen’s 1996 tournament run and became a key leader in the team’s 1998 postseason drive.
Today, Liz made herself into the significant contributor she is, Schmidt said.
“This is one of those success stories that I can’t take any credit for. Throughout last season, she kept getting up to speed with the college speed of the game. She didn’t have a big role, then she had to adjust to playing different positions. I think that allowed her to dive in, test her own play and find ways to continue to get better,” Schmidt said. “I give her a ton of credit because she took the initiative to make the most out of every opportunity. She kept pushing.
“Then, she took Dance for Sports with Nicki Flinn [-Culver] in the spring. She gained so much more coordination over her body to the point last spring that we were like ‘She is really hitting the ball hard.’ When Annie [Lockett] went down with a sprained ankle and made a need for another outside position, every time we would put people in competitive battles, she kept stepping up.”
Liz reminded Schmidt of someone she respected while a student-athlete at Hope. While Chris was playing basketball, Schmidt played volleyball for the Flying Dutch before graduating in 1999.
“I think about Chris, too. I didn’t know him that well, but we were classmates,” Schmidt said. “I did watch him play basketball and I could see how gritty he was and how hard he worked: just nose-to-the-grindstone type of athlete he was. I definitely see those same traits in Liz.”
Daughter and father: both finely crafted like a Swiss watch.