Janelle Ruen, the quiet assassin of the winningest major college volleyball team in the nation, can't understand why everyone makes such a fuss about her playing two sports at Eastern Washington University. After all, she competed in five sports at Post Falls High School, including swimming (complete with 5:30 am practices) and volleyball each fall.
Two-sport athletes are a dying breed at the college level, but Ruen makes it look disgustingly easy while maintaining a 3.7 grade point average and making friends as easily as she makes kills and baskets.
The lanky 5-foot-11 Ruen has earned all-Big Sky Conference honors in volleyball and basketball, and she's also made the all-Big Sky Academic teams in both sports. Ruen was named Most Valuable Player of the Big Sky volleyball tournament last year, when she led the Eagles to the championship, then helped EWU beat Oregon State in Eastern's first-ever victory in the NCAA Division I volleyball tournament.
Combine all that with Ruen's engaging personality and thousand-watt smile, and it's easy to understand why EWU volleyball coach Wade Benson has asked Ruen to be a godparent to his first child when he is born later this month.
"She's always been a super kid... stable, caring, responsible, fun," Benson says.
"Incredible intensity... yet she's able to smile and enjoy the whole thing," adds Post Falls girls basketball coach Chris Johnson.
Ruen, a senior outside hitter in volleyball and a junior wing in basketball -- she sat out last basketball season to rest up physically and mentally -- has played a prominent role in Eastern's rise to national prominence in volleyball. The undefeated Eagles have won a school-record 17 straight matches and, after never cracking the Top 25 poll before this season, have climbed steadily to No. 17 despite playing only one home match thus far.
"It's just been amazing what this team has been able to do with this type of 'road warrior' mentality," says Benson, head coach at Eastern for three years after assisting Pam Parks the previous four. "I wonder if anyone has ever been 17-0 with 16 matches on the road. I almost guarantee it's never been done. I don't think it's close."
Ruen, the lone Eagle senior besides star middle blocker Monica Lynch, credits the fiery Benson with pushing Eastern from good to great in volleyball.
"We're getting better and better recruiting classes," says Ruen, who played for Benson on Spokane Splash club volleyball teams after each of her final three high school seasons. "Wade has been able to recruit a wider range of recruits, and I think Wade is finally able to see the rewards of his coaching system. It's exciting."
Ruen is a big part of the excitement, whether she's exhibiting her sensational leaping ability when pounding balls over the net or executing full-length dives to make spectacular digs in the back row.
"She's a great floor leader for them," says Debby Colberg, the longtime coach of perennial Big Sky power Sacramento State. "She's an extension of the coach on the floor. Whatever he wants done, she gets the players on the floor to do what the coach wants."
"She's extremely gifted athletically," agrees Oregon coach Carl Ferreira. "She's got great feet, great court sense, great court awareness. What an anchor to have in terms of reliability."
"I'll be glad when she graduates," Colberg says with a laugh. "She's a terrific player. She's solid in every regard."
Post Falls coaches learned all that and more about the soft-spoken Ruen soon after she arrived as a freshman.
"Janelle would never be intimidated by anything," Johnson says. "She just had a quiet confidence."
Well, not all the time. Ruen and her high school teams enjoyed considerable success in volleyball, basketball, track and swimming, but she is quick to point out that she failed miserably at fastpitch softball as a freshman on the junior varsity, years removed from her limited previous experience in softball.
"I was BAD!," she says with a laugh. "I mean, I was good at T-ball, but when they started pitching that ball in there fast, I was going, 'What am I doing?' "
Preparing, it turns out, to focus on "just" four sports. Ruen credits good time management for her ability to ably juggle sports, a full load of classes, a boyfriend (EWU basketball player Clint Hull) and the occasional movie during her limited free time.
Ruen said she was "very glad" she took a year off from basketball ("I just got to be a regular student"), but now she's "90 percent" certain she'll spend a fifth year at Eastern so she can play two more years of basketball.
"At first, it was easy to watch the basketball team last season, because I needed the break," Ruen says. "But at the end, I was just dying to be out there."
Ruen says she may eventually pursue a professional volleyball career overseas, but she's studying to be a nutritionist. She's on track to earn her health and wellness degree next spring, and she plans to add a psychology degree if she remains in school next year.
Benson might not be one of Ruen's classroom teachers, but Ruen says Benson uses volleyball to teach all the Eagles plenty about health and wellness and psychology.
"He's a great motivational coach," Ruen says. "He's very smart technically. He can really get you going before a big match."
Benson has been known to get the Eagles "going" more than they like at practice. Ruen has become more vocal on the court over the years, but in the past, Benson occasionally would order Ruen to step aside and watch her teammates run windsprints as punishment for Ruen not being loud enough.
"Now," Ruen says proudly, "I'm one of the loudest. Everyone is doing a lot less running."
Nowadays, the Eagles are preparing for another run at the Big Sky championship and the NCAA tournament, plus national recognition for one of the top team GPAs in the nation for the fifth time in six years. After that -- who knows? Maybe the Eagles can even convince Washington State and Washington to stop dodging them and add them to their schedules. n
The Eagles, who ranked in the top 30 in NCAA Division I women's volleyball attendance the past four years, drew a school-record 1,624 for their Sept. 23 win over Oregon in their lone home match thus far. Eastern returns to Reese Court for Big Sky Conference matches Thursday, Oct. 10, versus Weber State and Saturday, Oct. 12, versus Idaho State. Both matches start at 7 pm.