When it comes to volleyball, Air Force’s Denise Ssozi is keeping her focus narrow.
The Falcons (4-10, 1-1 Mountain West) will host Wyoming on Thursday night and No. 16 Colorado State on Saturday afternoon. In a 25-18, 19-25, 25-19, 25-20 victory over Utah State on Sept. 26, Ssozi became the seventh Air Force player at the Division I level to register 1,000 kills in her career.
Those numbers won’t take up brain space right now. At the moment, it’s about being the best player on the court on any given night, and as Air Force’s only senior, doing what she can to change the culture surrounding the program.
“We’ve opened the doors a little bit on — we want you to be you,” said Ssozi, a 5-foot-8 native of Johnston, Iowa. “Bring your personality, bring whoever you are outside, bring it onto the court. We’re going to accept that.
“That’s what I think we’re a lot better at this year — supporting each other.”
She said the Falcons have started to reject the hierarchy of classes — freshmen are welcome to outplay her, for the good of the team. She won’t roll over, though.
First-year coach Keith Barnett, who coached in other roles previously, said from the beginning, Ssozi was “highly intense” and a perfectionist.
“Even as a freshman, there was a lot of desire there, a lot of ‘I want to be great,’ which is awesome,” he said.
The outside hitter’s legs have borne the brunt of that intensity. Her patella is loose and moving around. She suffered a stress fracture in basic training, and she recalled doctors telling her, “the only way this is going to stop hurting is if you stop playing volleyball.”
That obviously didn’t happen. She played through. As a junior, she was Air Force’s most valuable player after being in the starting rotation every match, registering the eighth-best single-season mark for digs (324) in Air Force’s Division I history. She had double-digit kill totals in 20 outings.
She had to have surgery in May after hurting her knee in an unarmed combatives class. Barnett said she set a goal to play against Navy on opening weekend, Aug. 30.
Ssozi only had clearance to play in the front row, but she was there. She registered a pair of blocks.
“It’s nothing short of the work ethic we’ve come to expect from Denise,” Barnett said.
Though it took a little longer to get her “groove back” after knee surgery than she would have liked, and climbing stairs remains a challenge, there will be time later for recuperation and reflection on a standout career.
For now, there’s work to do.
“I just play,” she said, “And whatever comes, comes.”