Any time she steps onto a gym floor, Montana State University-Northern senior libero Holly Cartwright feels right at home. She feels that way because she loves volleyball, loves the competition and she knows she's very good at what she does.
But with the exception of an occasional road match, for the last nine years, when Holly Cartwright steps onto a gym floor for a match, she doesn't just feel at home, she literally is at home.
Cartwright has been playing volleyball competitively since her days at the Havre Middle School, then for four years as a standout libero at Havre High, and now, for the last four years as a Skylights.
To get to do what she loves, in front of family and friends, for as long as she has, is a dream come true for someone like Cartwright. It's not often a hometown hero in high school, like Cartwright, who was an All-Conference performer and Defensive Player of the year for the Blue Ponies, gets to continue to be a hometown hero in college. But that's exactly what the 5-3 Cartwright has done, and she's done it with a sport she nearly stopped playing way back when.
"When I was just starting out in volleyball, I didn't know if I was going to keep playing," she said. "I always looked at the other players, they were so much taller, and they were hitters and could block at the net. I didn't think, with my size, it was a sport I could really be good at at that time. I was just going to focus on basketball honestly.
"But coach (Bill) Huebsch saw potential in me," she continued. "He really kept me going in the sport. He knew I could be good at it, and he really kind of made me his project. He really got me to where I am today."
Huebsch has been Cartwright's volleyball coach for nearly 10 years, with the only exception being Holly's senior year when he left his job at Havre High to take over the fledgling program at Northern in 2009. However, one year later, they were re-united at Northern, giving Cartwright the opportunity to stay home and continue playing volleyball, and giving Huebsch the opportunity to continue helping to mold her into what she is now, which is one of the best libero's in the Frontier Conference, if not all of the NAIA.
"Right around that time she wasn't sure if she could play volleyball, was the same time frame that MHSA added the libero as an official position in volleyball," Huebsch said. "So I think with how well she already understood the game, that was a spot she could really excel at. And then, the reason she has come this far is because of her work ethic and her competitiveness. What she lacks in size, she makes up for in heart and brains. She really embraced the libero spot, she worked really hard at it year after year, and obviously it's worked out. She's earned the respect of everybody in this league, and that's not easy to do because the big hitters and blockers always get all the glory. But Holly is well-respected in this league and she's earned that through hard work, and heart and her passion for the sport and for her team.
High praise from her coach is nothing new to Cartwright. After so many years together, she has certainly earned the Huebsch's respect. And it was Huebsch who helped get her to Northern, even though when she was a senior at Havre High, he was no longer her coach, and she was strongly considering going in a different direction with her athletic career.
"When he (Hubesch) called me to tell me he was taking the job at Northern, I was pretty upset honestly," Cartwright said. "He had such a huge impact on me as a player and as a person. He created my love and passion for the sport, and it was hard having him not be my coach that year. So honestly, I was looking at going to MSU-Billings to play softball and maybe volleyball too. But when he recruited me it was a no-brainer. I respect him as a coach so much, and I knew that Northern was where I wanted to go.
"He's had such a big impact on me," she continued. "Not just as a volleyball player, but as a person. He's so passionate about the game, and about this team and this program, and he instilled that passion in me. I've been coached by him now for like nine years and I wouldn't trade it for anything. So when he recruited me to come play here, that, and that it gave me the chance to be home and be with my family, to have them see play and to support me, it was just the perfect situation. And it's been amazing ever since.
"We are very lucky we were able to wrestle her away from softball," Huebsch added. "She's had a profound impact on this program. The things she's been able to accomplish are remarkable. She's a real leader, a real competitor, she makes everyone around her better. We are just very lucky we were able to get her here and have her as part of this program."
On and off the floor, Cartwright's impact on the MSU-N program can't be measured. But to put it in perspective, the year before she joined the team, the Skylights won just four Frontier matches. Since 2010, they've won 32 matches in conference play, and over the last two seasons, they've become the premier power in a league known for great volleyball.
Individually, Cartwright has totaled 1,543 digs for her career, including a career-high 552 as a junior, a year in which she earned All-Conference honors for the first time. But where her impact can't be seen, where it's more known than shown, is with her team, with her family, in the classroom and away from the spotlight. Cartwright is a talented volleyball player, but she's so much more than that, and everybody around her knows it.
"It has been a great benefit to me, playing with such a strong player," Northern freshman Sydney Stolearcius, who will assume the libero role after Cartwright graduates said. "I have been able to watch her and feed of her. She is such a strong player and the team really looks up to her, but with her leadership, I also look up to her.
"She helps to keep us grounded," she continued. "When we are all rattled, it is her who is like 'Ok guys, lets settle down and take a breather. Let's go, we've got this.' She just always brings a super positive attitude, and for me, coming in as a nervous freshman, she just put her arm around me and said: 'You know what Sydney, you are a good passer, always think that to yourself, own it, and know you are the best passer out there.' She is so confident and has really helped me coming straight out of high school.
"Holly is a special kid," her mom Sandy lamented. "She's very determined, very outgoing, she has a big heart. When you watch her play, you see how much heart she has. She's very unselfish, she cares about others, she cares about her teammates. She's always excited about her teammates. She is such a great team player. She's always putting others first and I think you see that when you watch her. You see her smile, her attitude is so positive. It's just very hard to put into words the kind of person, and the kind of athlete she is. She's just Holly."
And being Holly has helped lift herself, and the Skylights to heights never seen before. There's no denying that Cartwright's place on the team is directly related to Northern's recent successes. She's a born leader, she is an unselfish player, and most of all, she loves and respects her teammates, and the sport.
"That's what I love about my position," Cartwright, who will graduate this spring with a degree in Agriculture Business said. "I love making that play to save a point for my team, or to extend a rally that eventually sets someone up for a kill. That's why I'm so passionate about this sport. I love, and have always loved the team aspect of it. I love being a part of a team, the relationships you get to have, and I really love being a part of this team we have right now. They are such a great group of girls, we have such a great bond, and they motivate me to do what I do."
The End is Near
The journey Holly Cartwright started back in middle school, the one she took with Huebsch all these years, and the one that has taken her from a young high school player to a mature, veteran college player playing on an elite team is almost over. Of course, Northern, and Cartwright still have big goals in front of them, but for the most part, the clock is ticking on something Cartwright has been doing in her home town for nearly a decade.
And she, and those around her haven't taken one moment of the unique experience for granted.
"It's been an amazing journey," Cartwright said. "It's had its ups and downs for sure. My first two years at Northern, there were some tough times. But it's all been worth it. This team we have right now is just amazing and I love them all so much. Getting to play for Bill for four more years, someone I respect and admire so much, and then to get the chance to play in front of my family all these years, that's just so awesome. My family is it for me. They are everything to me, and to be able to stay home and play here, where they are, it's meant the world to me. I'm so blessed.
"For us to be able to watch her, when she started playing soccer at five years old, up until now," Sandy said. "There are no words for that. It's been so special. We're so proud of Holly, not just as a volleyball player, but as a person. She's an amazing person.
"It's hard to put into words," Huebsch added. "We've been through this process together. We've seen the lowest of lows and the highest of highs together. We've been through this together for 9-10 years now. It's been incredible. She's not only been an incredible player, but she's a great student-athlete, a great leader, and just an great all-around person. She has a special place in my heart for sure, and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her for as long as I have."
Havre is fortunate to have Cartwright too. For nearly a decade, she's been the face, and the heartbeat of volleyball in the community. Over the last 10 years, volleyball and Cartwright have gone hand-in-hand around these parts.
Havre's Holly Cartwright has been a standout libero both at Havre High, and later at MSU-Northern.
And though it's almost over, Cartwright looks back on it all, and looks ahead with that big smile on her face. The smile everyone has grown accustomed to seeing. Yes, Holly Cartwright is a home town hero. Holly Cartwright has embraced the rare opportunity to shine in college athletics at home, to start and finish something in the same place she grew up. And being the person, and player Cartwright is, the little girl with such a big heart, a big drive to succeed and an even bigger game on the court, has loved every second of it. And so have all of us.
"It's special, it really is," an emotional Cartwright said. "I'm so blessed to have had this opportunity. To be a hometown hero feels really good. Honestly, I didn't know how it would all turn out, but, to have had great teammates all these years, to get to play for a great coach all these years, to be home with my family here, to play the sport I love in a town and a community I love so much, it's been absolutely amazing. And I wouldn't trade any of it for the world."