By Brandon Buechler
A girl sits at a desk, pencil in hand, furiously sketching the portrait of an anime character while Lady Gaga blares on repeat from speakers behind her.
She brushes away her short-cropped blonde hair, rolls down the sleeves of her sweater, inserts her thumbs back into the worn holes and marvels at her work.
An email notification pings: the results from last week's volleyball tryout. The subject line tells it all.
"Come back as a libero."
A 16-year-old Emily Nicholishen knows the reason: she's too short to be a hitter.
Typecast as a libero, a defensive position where shorter players thrive, Nicholishen has been here before.
Five years later Nicholishen, at five foot, seven inches, is a key piece on a nationally ranked Ryerson women's volleyball program.
As a hitter.
"I've never been your typical volleyball player," Nicholishen laughs, just weeks after completing her fourth season — and third playoff appearance — at Ryerson.
But it's never stopped her — in fact, it's pushed her.
"[Being different] used to light a fire under my butt," says Nicholishen, now 21.
Head coach Dustin Reid says that was part of why his club recruited the promising young star from Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby, Ont.
"She could do anything she wants if she puts her mind to it," he says. "And we were looking to bring that type of culture to Ryerson."
Nicholishen, who grew up with a teacher for a mother and a city road worker for a father, came to a volleyball program that was in shambles.
Despite the team winning just one game in 2010-2011, Nicholishen felt drawn to the Ram's squad.
"Ivan [Joseph] and Dustin sat down with me at one point and showed me their plan," Nicholishen says. "With the [Mattamy Athletic Centre] coming and the way they were taking the program in a completely different direction, I saw it as a great opportunity."
The team improved to 6-13 in the 2011-2012 season before breaking out in 2012-2013, going 14-4 and winning bronze in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoffs.
And Nicholishen was a mainstay all the way, averaging 55 appearances and 164 points each season.
Nicholishen admits that she was a little bit different from the rest of her teammates coming up through the high school and club volleyball systems.
"I was an awkward kid. I never fit the stereotypical volleyball player: Lulu lemon pants, Hollister shirts, that kind of thing," Nicholishen says. "I had the sweaters with the thumb holes, short hair — the 'emo' cut, with the eyeliner."
She says she was never very close with her old teammates because of those differences, despite countless hours together.
"We were definitely friends on the court, but outside of the team, we didn't really hang out, or become super close," she says. "We just had different interests."
But coming to Ryerson, allowed her to grow — both her hair and her character.
"Coming here, I really found myself, who I am as a person," she says, her straight blonde mane now reaching far past her shoulders.
Nicholishen still maintains her interests, but has found a way to become close with her Ryerson teammates, using volleyball as a medium.
"We see each other daily and there's a significant amount of team-building and stuff outside of the gym that Ryerson does," she says.
Take the team's trip to Mexico in December 2011 for example.
"We got the chance to go to Mexico to build homes [for Habitat for Humanity], which was amazing."
Nicholishen said it was those opportunities that really bonded the team together.
Former teammate Krystyna Ng says it's not just the team Nicholishen has learned to influence.
"She has a way of bringing [people up] with her energy and enthusiasm," Ng says. "She's very caring and empathetic to people. It's what makes her great as a person."
"Emily loves the city," Mary Ellen Nicholishen says. "[Toronto] is contemporary and immediate, and she wants to be a part of that."
Mary Ellen, now a retired teacher, described the young Emily as somebody who was energetic, fun and excitable, yet quiet, studious, and thoughtful at the same time.
"Emily had plenty of friends [as a kid]," she says. "She was always bringing people home, and she was loud and crazy and fun.
"But then she was always in her room, doing her homework or drawing something. She was very good at science."
That made Toronto the perfect fit — a big city providing a wide range of experiences for a girl with a wide range of interests.
She spent her first year at Ryerson in the New Media program, believing it would be the ideal outlet for her artistic talent.
"It ended up being complete the opposite kind of art that I was into," she says. "It's that Nuit Blanche kind of stuff that you have to wrap your head around and I wasn't into that."
After her first year, she decided to change her direction, enrolling in biology.
"She made a complete 180 and went into the biology program, which was her original plan coming to Ryerson," says her mom.
But ask the biology student what she plans to do with that degree and you'll get wide eyes and an open mouth in response.
"I'm still trying to figure that out," she says. "We don't have a kinesiology program here, which really sucks. I'd like to maybe stay involved in volleyball as a personal trainer."
Her coach believes Emily could go into just about anything.
"Once she finds something she's passionate about, she'll do it; whether that's staying in biology, being an educator … going into administration or coaching a team," says Reid.
Whatever Emily decides, her mother knows her competitive nature will push her forward.
"She's always been super competitive — and I think that's a good thing," Mary Ellen says.