Courtney Harnish

Courtney Harnish doesn’t like the word “settle.”

Settling means being content. It means being finished.

Nothing Courtney does is ever quite done.

In elementary school, she was the kid who’d finish an hour-long assignment in 15 minutes and spend the other 45 reevaluating her answers. Perfection wasn’t just her goal—it was her expectation. It was her standard.

Thanh Harnish, her mother, remembers a parent-teacher conference in which Courtney’s kindergarten teacher predicted that she was going to struggle in school.

Courtney’s high standards have led her to a full academic scholarship, a walk-on position on the Indiana volleyball team, and a captain’s role as a senior.

“What?” Thanh asked, surprised. “She just started kindergarten. What could possibly be wrong?”

“She doesn’t know how to make mistakes,” the teacher said. “She won’t allow herself to.”

Courtney’s high standards have led her to a full academic scholarship, a walk-on position on the Indiana volleyball team, and a captain’s role in her senior year.

On the court, she starts every play. As a defensive specialist, Courtney is the one responsible for the first touch on defense. Her first move dictates whether or not Indiana can attack.

Get it right and Indiana stays in system. Get it wrong and everyone’s left scrambling.

“There’s definitely pressure that comes with it,” Courtney said. “The DS needs to put the ball in the right spot every play. Everything starts after that first touch.”

Courtney would rather her play go unnoticed. Defensive specialists don’t get the recognizable stats or highlight-reel scoring plays. Her job is to set her teammates up for success.

And she expects to every time. It’s the way Courtney is.

Courtney started playing club volleyball when she was seven.

Her mother was her first coach. Her family lived in Muncie, Indiana, and she traveled the country playing competitively. By age nine, she left her mom’s team to start playing for the nationally acclaimed Munciana Volleyball Club. When she was 12, Munciana won a national championship.

“Volleyball was always very competitive, but it was fun,” Courtney said. “I never really felt pressured to play or anything. It was just something I always did.”

School was always more important to Courtney. Volleyball was a game. She never forgot that.

Thanh Harnish, Courtney’s mother

Volleyball may have always been a part of Courtney’s life, but it was never the biggest part.

Her parents instilled in her that school was always going to be the priority. Volleyball was an escape, a way to relax. Playing became a much-needed break from the stress of school.

“School was always more important to Courtney,” Thanh said. “Volleyball was a game. She never forgot that.”

During Courtney’s sophomore season at Muncie’s Burris Laboratory School, Thanh joined the coaching staff. The following two seasons, Thanh was Courtney’s head coach.

With that came more pressure. Courtney wasn’t just playing for her coach anymore. She was playing for mom.

They had an unspoken family rule: volleyball stayed at volleyball. The second Courtney and Thanh left the gym, they were mother and daughter again, not coach and player.

“I can honestly say our relationship was phenomenal,” Courtney said. “We kept it gym only. If I had a bad practice, we didn’t talk about it on the car ride home.”

At the same time Thanh started coaching her again, Courtney’s recruitment started heating up.

Near the end of her high school career, she received her best scholarship offer. It was from Jacksonville State University in Alabama. Thanh believed Courtney was going to accept the offer, but Courtney acted reserved whenever the topic came up.

“I think she was scared to tell us she didn’t want to go there,” Thanh said. “What she wanted was to attend IU.”

Courtney Harnish

Despite not being offered a volleyball scholarship by Indiana, then fresh off a Sweet Sixteen run in the NCAA tournament, Courtney decided to accept a full academic scholarship to IU, where she would later choose to major in human development and family studies. She’d speak with head coach Sherry Dunbar-Kruzan about joining the team, but if it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen.

School always came first. That wasn’t about to change.

“It was a very mature decision,” Thanh said. “At that point, she was ready for volleyball to be over if it was going to be over.”

It wasn’t. Dunbar-Kruzan wanted Courtney on the team. Volleyball would continue to be Courtney’s escape at Indiana.

She slowly worked her way into the lineup over her first few seasons, becoming one of the most consistent players on the team. She was named captain in the spring of 2015, which she thought was what she wanted.

But as practice began for her final season, doubt started to creep in.

The spring of 2015 was rough on Courtney.

The pressures of school and volleyball were adding up. She was not struggling academically. She never did. But her plate was getting too full, and she was starting to feel the demands of her captain’s role.

“Being a captain was very important to me because you’re looked up to just a little bit more,” she said.

She asked herself whether one more year of volleyball, which was supposed to be her way to relax, would be worth all of the hard work.

After a particularly difficult day of training, Courtney did what she always did when she was upset. She called her mom.

“She was a little too overwhelmed,” Thanh said. “I told her, ‘Don’t play because of me. You can walk away if you want.’ I told her, ‘Maybe God put you there for someone other than yourself. Maybe you’re there to teach the other players something, maybe you’re not. But you have to decide.’”

Twenty minutes after hanging up the phone, Courtney forwarded Thanh an email. The athletic department was advertising an opportunity for student-athletes to go to Vietnam—where Thanh’s family is from—through a program called Coach for College.

If Courtney went on the trip, she would teach middle school–aged students math and the basics of volleyball. She was eligible only because she was a student-athlete.

It was a sign, Thanh said, that everything would be all right.

“The opportunity to go to Vietnam was a dream come true,” Courtney said. “The second I got that email, I knew I’d do whatever I needed to do to go.”

Courtney grew up hearing stories about Vietnam.

Her grandfather was an American soldier. He fell in love with a Vietnamese woman—Courtney’s grandmother—while serving in the Vietnam War. The two came to the United States with Thanh, then seven, and Thanh’s sister in the 1970s.

Courtney’s grandmother and mother

When Courtney arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in the summer of 2015, she immediately felt connected with her ancestors. The country was hot, dirty, and filled with poverty, but it was also the land her family once called home. She could begin her day by grabbing fresh fruit directly off the trees surrounding the rural school where she taught. There was no indoor plumbing. There was no electricity. She’d have to use a bucket and cloth to bathe each day.

“It was just like the stories my mom would tell growing up,” Courtney said. “I really never understood what it was like until I saw it myself.”

Unlike the Vietnam that Thanh grew up in, the village where Courtney lived had a wireless connection. Mother and daughter talked over Skype, experiencing Vietnam together.

“I think it strengthened our relationship,” Courtney said. “I felt more connected with her than ever before.”

The schoolchildren, who didn’t speak English, gave Courtney perspective. They were thankful for the little that they had, she said, and they were willing to share all that they had.

When Courtney arrived in Vietnam, she immediately felt connected with her ancestors.

“They appreciated everything,” Courtney said. “It makes you appreciate what you have.”

Courtney’s trip couldn’t have come at a better time. Her three weeks in Vietnam were exactly what she needed to recharge before heading back to Bloomington for her senior season.

“She needed it,” Thanh said. “I think that really changed her perspective on things.”

Courtney returned to Indiana rejuvenated.

The Hoosiers needed a leader, and she was ready.

“The captain’s role has definitely been a challenge, but it’s a challenge I’ve really embraced,” Courtney said. “I know I can help this team and lead it to a better place. I take pride in that.”

Courtney expects everyone to play with the same intensity and the same drive as she does. That’s asking for a lot, honestly, but the girls respond to her.

Sherry Dunbar-Kruzan, IU women’s volleyball head coach

On the floor, Courtney is an extension of Dunbar-Kruzan. Her years of playing volleyball for her mother have helped her develop one of the highest volleyball IQs on the team, Dunbar-Kruzan said.

After practice, Dunbar-Kruzan will turn to Courtney in the team huddle and ask for her thoughts. Without missing a beat, Courtney will rattle off what she thought the team did well and what she thought needed to be worked on.

She’s always confident in what she says, Dunbar-Kruzan said, and her confidence rubs off on her teammates.

Courtney Harnish holds a volleyball.

“She’s not afraid to be blunt because that’s just her personality,” Dunbar-Kruzan said. “Courtney expects everyone to play with the same intensity and the same drive as she does. That’s asking for a lot, honestly, but the girls respond to her.”

They respond because they trust her, junior Allison Hammond said. Courtney never does anything just for the sake of doing it, Hammond said. She does everything for a purpose.

“If you’re sure in what you’re saying and confident in yourself, people will follow,” Courtney said.

She backs up her confidence with her play. As a junior, she finished the season fifth on the Hoosiers’ all-time list for single-season digs with 445, becoming just the third player in program history to record at least 445 digs in a single year. In 2015, she’s well on her way to leading Indiana in digs once again.

“She’s consistent,” Dunbar-Kruzan said. “You always know what you’re going to get out of Courtney because Courtney knows what she expects out of herself. She sets her own standard, and she reaches it.

“No questions asked. She just does it.”

Courtney doesn’t want to be remembered as a volleyball player.

She wants to be remembered as Courtney.

“We are here to be athletes, but we’re also here to be well-rounded people,” Courtney said. “I take school very seriously and everything I do very seriously because I can use my education to help people, and that’s ultimately my goal in life.”

Courtney doesn’t know what her future has in store. She wants to work in public health or public health administration and one day wants to return to Vietnam. She plans on getting a master’s degree, but she’s not sure what program she wants to pursue quite yet.

“She doesn’t want to just be a great player,” Thanh said. “She wants to be a great person. She wants to leave an impact on something bigger than herself.”

Right now, that means leaving Indiana volleyball primed for success. It means mentoring the next in line for the role of captain and making one final push at an NCAA tournament.

If the Hoosiers fall short, Courtney said, so be it. They’re closer now than they were. They’re closer to the standard she has set in her mind. One day, she said, they’ll reach it. And when they do, she’ll be able to say she was a part of it.

It’s not a matter of if with Courtney. It’s a matter of when.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I’m not just here for myself,” Courtney said. “I’m here to have a legacy and teach girls what it means to be here and how they can really have an impact on the community. It’s not just about becoming better volleyball players. It’s about becoming well-rounded people.

“If I can graduate having taught them that, I did my job.”

Courtney Harnish practices with her teammates.
Courtney Harnish bumps a volleyball.
Courtney Harnish in a classroom with elementary school students