When sophomore outside hitter Lily Martin steps on the volleyball court, she thinks like a rower.
Over the summer, Martin and the rest of the Emory volleyball team read “The Boys in the Boat,” which tells the story of how the nine-man University of Washington rowing crew won gold at the 1936 Olympic Games. The rowers’ slogan was “mind in the boat,” reminding them that they were rowing toward their goal not as individuals but as one unit.
The two sports couldn’t be more different — instead of propelling a boat through water, Martin and her teammates play volleyball on hardwood floors. But the rowing mindset resonated with her team, and they adopted “mind in the boat” as their slogan for the year.
“Instead of playing as six individual positions out there … we come together and play as one unit,” Martin said.
Since her freshman year, Martin’s focus has been doing whatever she can to help her team, which head coach Jenny McDowell said Martin has achieved as one of the best athletes to play volleyball at Emory during her tenure.
“You do not want to play against Lily Martin,” McDowell said. “I’d always pick Lily to go to battle with me, for sure. She’s going to give it everything she has every single day and she loves to compete.”
However, ten years ago, Martin couldn’t imagine herself playing volleyball, much less at the collegiate level. She didn’t play sports growing up and preferred to spend her time drawing and doing crafts in elementary school.
She didn’t play a sport until sixth grade, when she joined her middle school volleyball team to make friends. Everyone made the team, and Martin admitted that she wasn’t good when she first started playing. She was short and scared of getting hit by the ball.
But that fear quickly subsided and Martin fell in love with the sport. She improved rapidly and made her first club-level team about five months later.
“I remember being so nervous that I was going to get cut because I felt like I didn’t have as much experience or the cool gear that the other girls did,” Martin said. “When my mom told me that I made the team, I remember being so excited and so proud of myself.”
The volleyball court has been Martin’s happy place ever since. When she started the college recruitment process in high school, Martin was drawn to Emory’s powerhouse volleyball team and coaches. The feeling was mutual, and McDowell began recruiting Martin her junior year of high school.
“She was one of the best athletes I have seen in her class, and we knew that she was the competitor and the leader and the volleyball player that we wanted in this program.”
However, COVID-19 abruptly ended her senior club season, so Martin decided to take a gap year. Although losing her senior season was difficult, Martin said it helped her appreciate getting to play again later, which assistant coach Leah Saunders (21C) noticed.
“What stands out the most about her is she doesn’t take the reps for granted,” Saunders said. “She doesn’t take the sweat, the tears, the frustration, the joy for granted. She wants all of it and she wants to become better for it.”
When Martin arrived on campus for her freshman season in 2021, she quickly made a name for herself. The first regular season game was at home against Oglethorpe University (Ga.). Emory played three sets, and Martin watched from the sidelines as her teammates beat Oglethorpe in the first two. She was so focused on supporting them that McDowell had to call Martin’s name multiple times before she realized she was being put in the game near the end of the third set.
She was hit with a mix of nerves and excitement. Martin had imagined this moment in her head before, and it always played out the same — she thought she would be anxiety-ridden, with worries about performing well clouding her mind. But when she ran onto the court, none of that mattered.
“When you’re going out there, you feel the support of your teammates and you trust in your hard work,” Martin said. “You get this sense of calm and focus.”
She stood at the end of the court and bounced the ball, spinning it in her hands before serving it. An opposing player shanked it out of bounds – Martin had scored an ace on her first collegiate serve.
“Everyone [was] very excited for me because it was my first time going in the game,” Martin said. “It was a good feeling, and it [was] the start of a really great period of my life.”
Martin became an integral player in the 2021 season, playing in all but two games on a squad that made it to the Regional Final of the NCAA Division III Women’s Volleyball Championship. She finished third on the team in kills (232) and kills per set (2.34).
“It’s definitely rare to have people who you can count on again in those conference championship moments, those regional final moments, who are taking care of business and they literally finished high school the year before,” Saunders said.
Last year, Martin primarily focused on improving her hitting skills, but she said that this season she has been working on becoming a more well-rounded player. She has recently dedicated more time to improving her passing, blocking and receiving serves.
“I [can] do more, which is exciting,” Martin said. “It’s definitely a transition because I’m used to getting so many kills per game, and maybe that decreases because of the other stuff that I’m doing, but it’s about learning to be OK with that. Ultimately that’s bettering the team.”
This year, Martin has recorded 176 kills, 2.51 kills per set, 33 total blocks and 62 digs.
Martin has helped the team earn its current 15-6 record, which includes a 3-1 win against Trinity University (Texas) at the East-West Classic on Sept. 9, which she called a fun and gritty win. Trinity was undefeated and ranked No. 2 in Division III at the time.
“That was probably my favorite game that I’ve ever played in my whole life,” Martin said.
During the same tournament, Emory beat Johns Hopkins University (Md.) 3-0, which Martin described as “sweet revenge” for Johns Hopkins beating the Eagles 3-0 in the 2019 National Championship game. Three weeks later, Emory beat the previously-undefeated Washington University in St. Louis (Mo.) 3-1.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” Martin said. “I remember being so happy for the team. That’s what it’s all about, because at the end of the day, whether you played bad, whether you played good, whether you played or not, we won the game, and that’s what matters.”
McDowell attributes Martin’s success to her being an “absolute workhorse,” noting that she leads the freshmen players by example.
“She continues to want to get better every single day, and that’s what makes Lily great, and that’s what’s going to lead us to, I think, many championships with her here,” McDowell said.
On top of a two and a half hour practice six days a week and lift three days a week, Martin goes in an hour and a half early twice a week for extra reps and sometimes stays late for rehab. On those days, she could be at the Woodruff Physical Education Center (WoodPec) from 1:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
“I don’t mind spending seven hours in the WoodPec during the day, going in there and throwing my body on the floor, getting bruised up, because I enjoy it,” Martin said.
Martin’s determination to help her team doesn’t end on the court, which was evident when the team was hit by several injuries last year. In October, sophomore setter Sarah Luong tore her ACL and sophomore starting middle blocker Madison Cail developed a stress fracture in her foot, while senior libero Lauren Bandera missed about half the season due to lingering COVID-19 symptoms.
“You have to lean on your teammates and say ‘We have to work extra hard for them,’” Martin said. “‘They want to be out here playing with us so bad, so we have to work extra hard and make them proud.’”
Luong, who is also Martin’s roommate, said Martin helped her through her injury by always getting her what she needed and encouraging her after a difficult day at rehab.
“She’d do everything for me,” Luong said. “It was amazing. She really stepped up when there was a lot of adversity last year, which was really awesome.”
Martin’s end goal is to win a national championship by maintaining a “mind in the boat state.” However, she said that her time at Emory is mostly about having fun with her team, whether it’s on the court or during pre-game dance parties in the locker room.
“I appreciate [volleyball] for the fun aspect, I appreciate it because it teaches me life lessons about how to overcome things and work hard,” Martin said. “It’s something I’ve had in my life for almost ten years now, so it’s a part of me. I’ll always be thankful for it.”