Before they were friends, before they were teammates, Stetson University freshmen Madison Akins and Tiffany Creamer were opponents on the volleyball court.
Playing at high schools separated by just 17.5 miles in an area south of Atlanta, Akins’ Whitewater High School and Creamer’s Landmark Christian School would often face each other a couple of times a year.
It was not a heated rivalry. The two schools competed in different classifications (Landmark Christian-A, Whitewater-5A), and both players helped lead their teams to Georgia State Championships their senior year.
However, it was not until Akins and Creamer joined the Tsunami 18-Val volleyball club team in the fall of 2012 that they became friends.
By that point Akins had already committed to play collegiately at Stetson, but Creamer was still weighing her options. Akins decided to plant a seed.
“I said to Tiff, ‘What if you came to Stetson? How great would it be to have a friend in college?” Akins said.
“We kept joking around all season, ‘Oh, we could go to school together,’ never actually thinking it would be real,” Creamer said.
In February of 2013, Stetson head coach Tim Loesch went to go watch Akins play and noticed that Creamer, whom he had initially recruited a year prior, had improved quite a bit. In fact, he was surprised to learn she was still undecided on a college.
Like a mastermind working both sides of a plan, Akins took advantage of the opportunity to tell Loesch how much she enjoyed playing with Creamer.
“It was over our spring break when we were playing club ball, and I was on the phone with coach,” Akins said. “He would ask me about Tiff, or I would say something about her. He asked about how she played, how good she was as a player.”
The timing worked out perfectly as Loesch was looking to finalize his recruiting class and Creamer was looking to make a commitment. A formal offer was made, and Creamer accepted.
This past summer, the soon-to-be Hatter teammates helped their Tsunami club team qualify for the USA Volleyball Junior National tournament in its final regional of the season. In late June the team traveled to Dallas, Tex. to compete against 47 other teams from across the country for a national title.
“For us it was weird, because in the previous tournaments we never finished strong,” Akins said. “But in this tournament we didn’t take any games for granted. We just took it one game at a time, and focused on that game.”
One match at a time, match after match, the Tsunami team came away victorious, and eventually found itself playing for the national title against NorCal Black.
“They definitely had some good players, they had some big girls on their team so it was an exciting game,” Creamer said.
“We were not a stacked team,” Akins said. “We had some girls going on to play in college, but that game took a lot of teamwork and fighting through every point.”
After the teams split the first two sets, Tsumani won the decisive third set 15-7 to capture the championship.
“The game started late, and when we got our awards, we were all rushing and changing and trying to make our flight,” Akins said. “Half the people missed their flights. Our pictures were all rushed. It was a big blur.”
In August, Akins and Creamer made their way to Stetson for preseason practice, and their friendship made transitioning to college life much easier.
“Just knowing somebody, and having somebody to go to lunch with every day was definitely helpful,” Creamer said. “Even during preseason, having someone there that you know to talk to about it, having someone who thinks the same thing and has had the same path was very helpful.”
The two were so inseparable at times, Loesch found himself getting their names mixed up, even though he could clearly tell them apart.
Both players also gelled quickly with the rest of their Hatter teammates. Akins said she expected her new college team to function in a similar fashion to her high school and club teams, but that assumption was quickly dispelled.
“Although (our club team) worked hard preparing for nationals, this team is the hardest working team I ever been on,” Akins said about the Stetson volleyball squad. “Coming into preseason, I was completely astounded at how hard people worked and how it is all about volleyball. Back at nationals, some girls didn’t love volleyball and they weren’t going on to play at higher levels, so it wasn’t their life. Here, everyone is so devoted, and they have that mindset that they want to be there for their team, on and off the court. Stetson has taught me a lot more about teamwork and working hard then I ever could have imagined.”
“Everyone has each other’s back for sure,” Creamer said. “As a freshman, it was definitely good to hear (the veterans say), ‘We are all willing to work for you and help you.’ They want you to succeed, they want everyone to succeed.”
Akins, Creamer, and the rest of the Hatters (13-7, 4-1 A-Sun) will look to be successful on the road this weekend as Stetson visits ETSU (11-6, 5-0) at 6 p.m. Friday and USC Upstate (1-13, 1-4) at 3 p.m. Saturday in a pair of key Atlantic Sun Conference matches. The Hatters are currently tied for third place in the league, one game behind undefeated ETSU and a half-game back of Jacksonville (5-1).
The USC Upstate match will be broadcast live on ASun.TV.
Akins and Creamer have both played key roles in the Hatters’ strong start this season. Creamer, a two-time A-Sun Freshman of the Week, ranks second on the team in kills, while Akins ranks fifth in kills and third in blocks.
When asked how a conference championship with Stetson might compare to their high school or club championships, Akins and Creamer each began smiling from ear to ear, virtually answering the question before saying a word.
“That would be amazing, it would be so cool,” Creamer said. “I can’t even put it into words.”
“For my high school team (winning state) wasn’t as big as a deal as it is for some high schools,” Akins said. “Nationals fell into place and was amazing, but here, we’ve worked so hard, and coming off what happened last season, it could make such a big impact for this program.
“A lot of the girls on this team deserve it,” Akins added. “For everything they have put into this year and for how well they are leading the team, I think they deserve it. I want to see them have that championship.”