Luedtke leading PSU York volleyball, from the court to Pink Out fundraisers

Thomas Kendziora
York Dispatch

Athletes don’t always need big stages and full stadiums to leave a legacy. Impacts can be made at small schools, in small gyms, and resonate all the same.

Last Thursday night at Penn State York’s Joe and Rosie Ruhl Student Community Center, pink posters were scattered across the walls in the name of breast cancer awareness. A table by the entrance had an empty cooler open for donations to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Pink shirts dotted the crowd dispersed along one sideline of the intimate arena. 

The organizer of the Pink Out, Zoe Luedtke, was also the home team’s sole honoree on senior night. 

Zoe Luedtke (10) and her Penn State York volleyball teammates gather during a match in September. Luedtke organized a Pink Out fundraiser to support the fight against breast cancer on Thursday, Oct. 20.

Luedtke, a Bermudian Springs High School graduate, also organized this fundraiser in 2021, although this year’s event was more involved. The cause hits close to home, as her grandmother died of breast cancer before Luedtke was born. And her Nittany Lion teammates rallied around her.

“It’s something that’s really close to Zoe’s heart,” Penn State York athletic director Jeff Barkdoll said. “I think this just gives her a way of giving back and honoring her grandmother, which is really good to see. The other girls were all in here decorating, they all bought into the shirts and everything and just loved the whole idea. So I’m really, really proud of this team and Zoe’s leadership.”

Luedtke said she started planning for the event in July, giving her three months to prepare instead of last year’s one month. She ordered special pink shirts for players and coaches. Teammates helped design and hang the posters, and Luedtke spent most of Thursday decorating before the match.

A sign to honor those afflicted by breast cancer sits by the entrance of the Penn State York gym before Thursday's Pink Out volleyball match.

“I had a lot more time this year, I got better decorations … the posters, the team got together and we made them ourselves,” Luedtke said. “It just took more time.”

In the senior night ceremony, both Barkdoll and the coaches took the mic and spoke glowingly of Luedtke. Head coach Keith Hartman called her a cornerstone of his program. Luedtke received a gift bag and a crown as her parents joined her on the floor for pictures.

Once the match started, by the way, York defeated Penn State Wilkes-Barre in straight sets (25-15, 25-14, 25-15). The Lions then swept Penn State Schuykill at home in their regular-season finale on Saturday, finishing a perfect 12-0 in conference play and improving to 19-5 overall. York will host Schuykill again in Wednesday’s Penn State University Athletic Conference (PSUAC) quarterfinals.

And the Lions are doing all this with eight players — six on the floor and two on the bench. The small roster places an emphasis on well-rounded skill sets, and that’s exactly what this team has.

“We’re all really versatile,” Luedtke said. “It's not just one spot for everybody — we all can play just about any spot on the court. And we really vibe well together. We’re all friends outside of here, and none of us don't get along.”

It’s a far cry from a program Luedtke joined in a rebuild. Penn State York revived its volleyball program ahead of the 2017 season, but the Lions went 0-15 that year and 3-14 the next before the concurrent arrivals of Luedtke and Hartman. York improved to 6-13 (4-8) in 2019, and after no season was played in 2020 amid the pandemic, the team took off and went 16-8 (11-1) en route to a PSUAC championship in 2021.

Hartman, who previously coached at Dover Area High School, built his program around local talent. Six of this year’s eight players competed in the York-Adams League as high schoolers; Luedtke and classmate Jessica Dunbar (Littlestown) played against each other. Combine that familiarity with Hartman’s emphasis on recruiting versatile players with high energy, and you have a winning formula.

“We have a family atmosphere,” said Hartman, whose wife, Val, is the team’s assistant coach. “You can watch the game and you can see there's a lot of energy out on the court, a lot of passion for the game. And we bring that to these young ladies, and a culture (has) been built from the ground up, in my mind.”

The student-athlete life isn’t for everyone, especially at this level, where the hectic schedules and long bus rides so often come without the big crowds or the recognition. For programs like Penn State York in particular, it’s hard to recruit to a school that for so many is only a stepping stone.

But when people like Luedtke embody the right things and set an example for others in the program, sometimes everyone else in the room follows suit. That’s how teams get the best out of themselves, and that’s how such a small group wins 36 sets in division play while dropping only two.

A poster celebrating Penn State York volleyball senior Zoe Luedtke hangs on the wall during Thursday's match, which also served as Luedtke's senior night.

“They’re a close group, they communicate well, they have great leadership on the coaching staff,” Barkdoll said. “When I first came here, our volleyball program was struggling, and to see where we are today, it's just really refreshing. But it didn't come without pain, it didn’t come without hard work, and these ladies really invested and really put the time in, the coaches did the same and it just all kind of came together.”

Earlier this season, on Sept. 26, the Lions held a fundraiser game in remembrance of teammate Courtney Groft, who died in a car crash Oct. 30, 2021. Donations were made that night to Gift of Life, an organ donor program. On that night, much like Thursday’s Pink Out, players were at the forefront of making everything happen. That’s by design.

“We’ve kind of let them take the leadership on that process because we want them to feel like it’s theirs,” Hartman said, “and they do take ownership of that.”

Luedtke, a psychology major who will graduate in spring 2023, hopes Penn State York continues the Pink Out even after she leaves. She said she’ll come back to watch and donate, and she plans to continue supporting the cause in other ways. 

There were plenty of reasons to celebrate Luedtke and her impact on the Lions’ program Thursday. But she left the arena more proud of the impact made off the court than anything.

“It really means everything to me,” Luedtke said. “I really wanted to leave a mark here before I left, and I really hope that they continue this tradition … and everything just gets better and better and (they raise) more money each year. That’s really what I hope for.”

A pink poster featuring Zoe Luedtke's number and picture hangs during Thursday's match.