Pickar digs way into starting lineup


Victoria Berndt, Sports Reporter

When describing her starting libero, Tatum Pickar, South Dakota State volleyball coach Nicole Cirillo uses words that just don’t seem to go together — aggressive and calming among them.

Pickar’s abilities and attitude have thrust her into a major role in her first season in yellow and blue, but her journey to becoming a Jackrabbit wasn’t so straightforward.

The sophomore from Cannon Falls, Minnesota, wanted to come to SDSU straight out of high school, but there weren’t any available roster spots. So, instead of coming to Brookings right away, she spent one year at the North Dakota State College of Science competing in the National Junior College Athletic Association.

In her one season at the junior college level, Pickar showed her potential by leading all of NJCAA Division II with 7.26 digs per set and finishing with 878 total digs, good for second-most nationally. NDSCS made the 16-team NJCAA D-II Volleyball Championship tournament and finished the 2018 campaign 31-4.

Cirillo then decided that Pickar was a player she wanted on her roster.

“I know it was a hard decision for Tatum leaving her junior college to come here,” Cirillo said. “She was the starting libero and was just voted team captain for the upcoming year. I am thrilled that it is working out for her because it was a big gamble.”

When Pickar finally made the decision to come to State in mid-May, the deciding factor wasn’t related to volleyball — it was the academics. She originally wanted to transfer in spring 2020 so it would fit her major requirements.

“SDSU has a great exercise science program,” Pickar said. “I love the campus size, and I think the town of Brookings is a good fit for me.”

Pickar’s academic drive and affinity for volleyball helped her follow in her parents’ footsteps and become a collegiate student-athlete.

“Tatum was a coach’s dream,” said Pickar’s high school volleyball coach Melissa Huseth. “She worked hard, never complained, wanted to be challenged and was willing to play any role needed.”

Besides Huseth, Pickar said her mother, Amy, and Natalie Sandifer made the most lasting impact on her game.

“Natalie is a family friend and was a volunteer assistant coach my sophomore and junior year of high school,” Pickar said. “She pushed me to my limits and made my limits expand. She has always pushed me to be better.”

Sandifer not only coached Pickar in high school but encouraged her to make the decision that was best for her, not just because she had the opportunity to play volleyball at SDSU.

“When she was making the decision to come to SDSU, I told her not to do it for volleyball — you need to do it for yourself,” Sandifer said.

The pair grew to be friends off the court, with Pickar even being in Sandifer’s wedding, but their close personal bond was formed and strengthened through the game of volleyball.

When Pickar is on the court, she clears her head and focuses solely on the game. For her, it’s a release.

“Volleyball is a distraction for me,” Pickar said. “I enjoy playing, but there are just good and happy things in my mind because I’ve been playing since I was little.”

In elementary school, Huseth remembers Pickar playing with older girls as a second and third grader, and Pickar was always at open gyms.

“I have a memory of her playing queens (a digging drill) with the big girls as an elementary player and digging balls like she was a varsity athlete,” Huseth said.

As Pickar got older, her communication skills got better. Combined with her already exceptional volleyball skills, she excelled rapidly.

“Not just her talent on the court but her personality on the court has improved,” Sandifer said. “As a libero you have to be vocal, communicate with your team and take a leadership role even though you may not be the senior. She has definitely done that.”

Cirillo said that Pickar’s teammates feel more confident when the aggressive libero and her calming presence are in the game because of her communication and effort. Through 14 matches this season, Pickar leads SDSU with 199 digs.

Pickar’s jump from a junior college to starting at the D-I level was a large one, but those who’ve been around her whole career aren’t surprised with her immediate successes against the elevated competition.

“You can teach kids a lot of things about volleyball, but it takes a certain person to become an athlete with heart like Tatum,” said Huseth. “She was born and raised that way.”