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Prep volleyball: Denfeld’s Schneeweis displays same grit her father did at UMD

Caitlin Schneeweis, a 6-foot outside hitter for Duluth Denfeld, bumps the ball during practice at the school Tuesday afternoon. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

At 6-foot-9, Jason Schneeweis always has been a commanding and even intimidating presence, especially while using his bulk and grit to put together one of the all-time great careers for the Minnesota Duluth men's basketball team.

The 2003 NSIC player of the year, who scored 1,474 points over four seasons, ranks third in program history with 879 rebounds and second with 131 blocked shots. Big and powerful as Schneeweis was, though, he couldn't bulldoze his way through life's challenges the way he could an overmatched defender.

So when his daughter, Caitlin, was born in November 2000 — early in his sophomore year in college — Schneeweis needed an assist. The family of Caitlin's mother, Catherine (Larson) Schneeweis, "really picked up the slack," Schneeweis said, allowing him to focus on being a student-athlete.

"It takes a village, to be quite honest," he said. "At that point in my life, I came into contact with the village that still surrounds me.

"I give them all the credit for providing some of the things I couldn't at the time."

Eighteen years later, Caitlin is making her own noise on the hardwood, and will begin competing in the NSIC next fall.

Only the sport is different.

A four-year starter on Duluth Denfeld's volleyball team, the 6-foot outside hitter has verbally committed to the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D.

While dad says Caitlin is far more athletically gifted than he ever was, she seems to have inherited his toughness.

During the Hunters' season opener vs. Greenway, the senior had amassed 17 kills through three games before rolling her ankle. Caitlin returned to action, but couldn't stave off a five-game loss to the Raiders. Two days later, she opened a nasty gash above her right eye while diving for a ball in the fourth game against Virginia. Caitlin went to the trainer's room and had it bandaged up, re-entered the fray, and helped Denfeld secure a 3-2 victory vs. the Blue Devils.

She ended the night with 26 kills — and five stitches.

Jason is nothing if not supportive of his only child. That doesn't mean he's a pushover.

"After that Virginia game, he said, 'Why did she have to get hit in the head before she stopped making errors?' " Hunters coach Pete Stasiuk recalled.

Denfeld will take a 6-2 mark into tonight's Lake Superior Conference showdown at Superior.

A year ago, Caitlin tallied 382 kills and 235 digs as Denfeld went 15-12, a terrific showing for this success-starved program. With several key veterans back, including deft setter Jordyn Maas and hitters Sadee Kidd and Ashley Larson, the Hunters could continue their upward climb.

It wasn't always this way. But diligent offseasons have allowed Denfeld to steadily improve while changing its culture. Winning has become the expectation. When she was a freshman, Caitlin said only herself and one other teammate played for Minnesota North on the national club circuit. Now it's the norm among Hunters.

"Just to see the contrast from my freshman year to now, it's a completely different feeling," Caitlin said before practice Tuesday, the cut above her eye still visible. "It's been the coolest experience ever."

Added Stasiuk: "That whole group has really bought into making this a better program and achieving goals that they wouldn't have thought of before at Denfeld. (Caitlin) was the ringleader that kind of started it."

Caitlin didn't join volleyball until she was in eighth grade. Until then, she was — surprise, surprise — a basketball player. Once she did, at the behest of her mother, Caitlin was sold. And her talent was evident from the outset. A fluid athlete with good size and uncanny strength, Caitlin was a natural. Goodbye, basketball.

Surprisingly, Jason didn't balk at the sport swap.

"At first, I was kind of sad," he said. "But you can't force anybody to do something that they don't love."

Caitlin, also a softball pitcher for the Hunters, where Maas is her catcher, has since added polish. Stasiuk still goes back and watches game film from her debut varsity season, in 2015, and the difference is night and day. Which is telling when you hear Stasiuk say, "She was really good back then."

Jason admits he didn't know a lick about volleyball until Caitlin became involved. He can't get enough of it now. He can be found at Denfeld matches watching intently, no doubt silently critiquing his daughter. She's receptive to his advice and says, "He's going to correct me when I'm doing things wrong."

That's what dads do.

Jason has enjoyed the ride. At the beginning, it's a safe bet that Caitlin was known as former UMD standout Jason Schneeweis' daughter. These days, the roles have reversed. He's Denfeld standout Caitlin Schneeweis' father.

"She's put so much work into this," he said. "It's been very rewarding to see her climb the ranks and make a name for herself."

PREP NEWSMAKER: Caitlin Schneeweis

Prep status: Duluth Denfeld senior

Age: 17

Sports: Volleyball, softball

GPA: 3.85

School activities: Hopes to do National Honor Society and Key Club

Family: Father, Jason; mother, Catherine

Pets: Three dogs

College plans: Play volleyball at University of Mary

Face-to-face with Caitlin Schneeweis

If I could meet one person — dead or alive — who would it be? Former University of Wisconsin volleyball player Kelli Bates

My ideal vacation: Outer Banks, N.C.

The toughest athlete I’ve competed against: Superior libero Hannah Hughes

If I had a million dollars, I would: “Build a giant volleyball facility in Duluth”

Fear or phobia: “I would never want to drown, I would never want to die in a fire and I hate being inside big crowds.”

Hobbies: Drawing and reading

Favorite home-cooked meal: Chicken Kiev and mashed potatoes

One thing at the top of my bucket list: Go to Germany

Favorite musical group: Camila Cabello

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