Unbreakable bonds: Outside hitter Shania Cromartie and ASU volleyball headed to NCAA tournament

ASU outside hitter Shania Cromartie, a junior transfer from Mississippi State, reflects on her journey from childhood ‘pepper’ sessions to the Sun Devils’ NCAA tournament run. (Photo courtesy of UCLA Athletics)

TEMPE – Arizona State outside hitter Shania Cromartie shows up whenever her number is called – whether it’s on the court or by a sister.

At the age of 8, Cromartie played on her city league team with 14-year-old girls, including her middle sister Shamiria.

More than a decade later, Cromartie, a junior who spent three years playing volleyball for Mississippi State before transferring to ASU, is an essential component of a Sun Devils team making its 20th NCAA tournament appearance. As the No. 5 seed, the Sun Devils (26-6) face the Georgia Bulldogs (19-11) Friday in Provo, Utah, in the first round of the Division I women’s volleyball championship field.

Throughout her life, Cromartie, 22, has been lifted up and motivated by her blood sisters and the sisters she has met on the volleyball court, where she has experienced a fair share of trials, tribulations and triumphs.

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Growing up in Tallahassee, Florida, Cromartie had two in-house volleyball coaches, her sisters Shaunbria, 32, and Shamiria, 27. Cromartie and Shaunbria were both coached by legendary Florida high school volleyball coach Angie Strickland. Cromartie took part in Strickland’s program at Leon High School, and Shaunbria was coached by her at the club level.

Shaunbria frequently looked for ways to work on her game individually. She grabbed her younger sister and instead of playing popular children’s games, the dedicated duo went onto their family’s lawn to “pepper.”

Peppering is when one player tosses the ball to the other, the second player bumps it back and the first player sets the ball. After this, the second player does a controlled spike with the first player bumping it back and repeating.

“My sister (Shaunbria) is really just a role model for me and someone I look up to,” Cromartie said. “She’s just always told me to work hard especially because most of us (sisters) are undersized for volleyball. She’s also told me to appreciate every moment especially because she is out of the sport now. She always says you don’t know how fast it’s going to fly by.”

A star on the court and rubber

The sisters faithfully practiced on their Tallahassee lawn no matter the weather. Once Cromartie turned 14 and played for Strickland, she also took on track and field to compete in the high jump and 4x400m relay.

Cromartie won the high jump state title as a junior and again as a senior. She was also an asset for Leon’s 4x400m relay team and set school records from 2016-2018.

Cromartie credits her agility, discipline in motions and an increased vertical jump she perfected throughout her track career to making her into an even better volleyball player.

“I think volleyball has always been my first love,” Cromartie said. “I love track and loved all my teammates and everything but being a part of a team sport like volleyball was better for me versus competing individually.”

While breaking track records at Leon High, Cromartie was concurrently winning All-Big Bend Player of the Year and Florida Dairy Farmers Class 6A Player of the Year for volleyball.

In addition to growing up with stellar athletes in her home, Cromartie’s uncle, Antonio Cromartie, played 11 seasons in the NFL and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection. A cornerback, his longest stint with a team was from 2006-2009 with the then-named San Diego Chargers.

“I went to a few games when I was younger but I grew to be very impatient in the stands as an active kid,” Cromartie said. “But even though I wasn’t really into football, I still wanted to carry out the legacy of my last name and it also helps drive my competitive spirit.”

Before transferring to ASU in June, Cromartie was an integral part of Mississippi State volleyball’s attempt to rebuild its program. As soon as MSU began to recruit Cromartie, she committed during her sophomore year at Leon.

“When I was playing volleyball in high school, the style was to commit early, I’m not exactly sure why, that’s just how it was,” Cromartie said. “I really liked it there and enjoyed the players and thought it would be a good home at the time.”

These days, aspiring Div. I athletes can not go on official visits until August of their junior year of high school. The athlete is allowed to make five official visits with one visit per school.

ASU Volleyball team celebrating together.

Under the leadership of Coach JJ Van Niel, the ASU women’s volleyball team storms into the NCAA Tournament for the 20th time in program history. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

The Mamba strikes again

Cromartie’s early commitment provided a security blanket when every athlete’s worst nightmare happened in March of her senior year: a torn ACL. This nightmare was the catalyst of a budding friendship between herself and former MSU middle blocker Gabby Wadden.

When Cromartie was an incoming MSU freshman, Wadden was entering her junior year at MSU. During Wadden’s senior year at Blythewood High School in Blythewood, South Carolina, she also tore her ACL.

The volleyball duo initially met at MSU’s Elite Dawg camp in 2021. The university hosts the camp for recruits and commits to intermingle with the current coaching staff and team.

“I knew from the first time I met her that she was a hard worker,” Wadden said. “Even when things did not seem to go right on the volleyball court, she was always open and willing to listen. She’s also a big social butterfly. She can walk into a room and not know anyone and leave with a million friends.”

Once Cromartie tore her ACL, Wadden made it her mission to constantly check on her. Wadden’s encouragement came in the form of five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant’s book “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play.”

“With injuries in sports, everyone around you is saying just stay positive but some days just aren’t going to be positive,” Wadden said. “You have to be able to take those bad days and not try to invalidate yourself that you feel that way. It’s not about where you are now in the recovery process, you have to know and believe that you are going to get better.”

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Cromartie’s volleyball career faced back-to-back obstacles with a torn ACL followed by the ups and downs of navigating COVID-19 as an athlete. Luckily for Cromartie, she still saw the upside in her career as the NCAA made adjustments to the format of games.

Once NCAA volleyball made a return, the SEC decided to play all conference matchups on back-to-back days. During MSU’s two-game set in 2021 against Florida, ranked No. 17 at the time, Cromartie had the best game of her collegiate career.

She did not play on the first night of the back-to-back, and MSU lost in five sets by dropping the last set 13-15. At the time, MSU was 0-53 against Florida.

“The game the next day, she played the best game of her college career,” Wadden said of MSU’s stunning win in the second game. “She had 25 kills against the No. 17 team in the country. She played extremely confident and extremely happy. This is definitely the best memory we have together, to be able to share the court together and make history together.”

During the same MSU season, Cromartie was named SEC Player of the Week and SEC Offensive Player of the Week.

“It was a really rewarding feeling and it made me feel like all of my sacrifices have been worth it,” Cromartie said. “I wouldn’t have been able to get the awards without my teammates.”

Although Cromartie and Wadden now live over 2,000 miles away from each other, they have stayed bonded by their shared experiences and through sending different hair, nail and outfit ideas to each other via text and social media direct messages.

“When I got to Mississippi, Gabby took me in and always offered her house,” Cromartie said. “She did anything to make me feel comfortable and at home. I really looked at how she carried herself on the court and outside the court.”

From the Magnolia State to the Valley

Cromartie transferred to ASU after learning about the culture of the program and observing how the current players interacted with each other. She also said first-year ASU coach JJ Van Niel took time to vividly explain his vision for the team, an outlook that made it hard for Cromartie to turn away.

Cromartie with former teammate Gabby Wadden.

Overcoming ACL tears and COVID-19 challenges, ASU’s Shania Cromartie finds inspiration in Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ and maintains a bond with former teammate Gabby Wadden. (Photo courtesy of Gabby Wadden)

His vision included building team trust and losing and winning with grace. Van Niel and Cromartie both experienced their first season in Tempe together but have rarely experienced any growing pains.

As a new addition to the Sun Devils, Cromartie’s best game came against Little Rock on Aug. 25, when she recorded a season-high of nine points and eight kills.

Van Niel’s blueprint landed him as the Pac-12 Coach of the Year in a season where the Sun Devils were 9-1 at home and a perfect 8-0 at neutral sites. This season was the first time he was the CEO of his own program after having a variety of assistant positions including at USC and Utah.

Currently ranked No. 18 in the nation, the Sun Devils are viewed as postseason dark horses with a team stacked with talent. Opposite hitter Marta Levinska was named to the All-Pac-12 Team. Outside hitter Geli Cyr, middle blocker Claire Jeter, setter Shannon Shields and libero Mary Shroll also received their first set of conference honors with honorable mentions.

Van Niel’s methods earned ASU volleyball its best start since 2015 and 18 sweeps during the regular season. The sweeps include beating in-state rival Arizona twice and an upset of then-ranked No. 3 Stanford.

After Cromartie’s postseason run with ASU, she will gear up for one last collegiate season with the talented group before focusing on her career in pharmaceutical sales.

“I’ve always told Shania that the sky is the limit,” Shaunbria said. “That’s always been a saying between the two of us and I am just so proud of her.”

Alexis Davis uh-lek-sis day-vis (she/ her/ hers )
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Alexis Davis expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. She has interned at the USA Today Network’s Commercial Appeal and ESPN’s Andscape as well as written feature and enterprise stories for Front Office Sports and the MEAC conference. She is an intern in the Phoenix Mercury digital and social departments.