AUSTIN, Texas --- Responsible, mature, driven.
Those are just a few words that have been used to describe Haley Eckerman in her first year as a collegiate athlete.
She entered the University of Texas as the nation's No. 5-rated volleyball recruit and has adapted well to her new surroundings. The 6-foot-3 outside hitter leads the No. 9-rated Longhorns in kills, and has become someone sophomore setter Hannah Allison refers to as a "go-to player."
While Eckerman's current home is over 1,000 miles removed from the city where she grew up, family in her hometown of Waterloo isn't far from her mind.
That's where her mom, Julia, is currently raising, Eckerman's son, Cayden, 1, and her sister, Aleah, 11. The three members of her immediate family plan to move to Austin around June. For now, daily conversations on Skype and appearances every couple weeks at volleyball matches has to suffice.
"(Cayden) is the motivation for me to work so hard in college right now, school-wise and volleyball-wise," Eckerman said. "It's hard to transition from being so used to being with him every day and then being 18 hours away. But I think that helps me focus because I know he'll be down here soon."
When Cayden entered Eckerman's life prior to her senior year of high school at Waterloo East, obtaining a college degree quickly became a priority.
"I think I knew right away, since having a baby, that I needed to get my education," Eckerman said. "I knew playing volleyball was the way to get an education."
As a high school senior, Eckerman never missed a step. She was a charismatic leader on the Trojans' volleyball team, while topping the state in kills for a third season.
Eckerman credits her mother for helping to keep her life on track.
"My mom is my role model," Eckerman said. "She has helped me get through everything. She's my biggest supporter. She never missed a high school game and she's always been there.
"Especially with her taking care of my son right now, she's just the biggest support that I have."
Two days after her high school graduation, Eckerman moved to Austin, where she began offseason work with her future collegiate teammates. Allison and incoming UT freshman Madelyn Hutson joined Eckerman on the U.S. Junior Women's National Team that placed fourth at the FIVB World Championships in Peru. Another UT freshman, Khat Bell, accompanied that group of eventual Longhorns in 2009 when they represented the U.S. Girls' Youth National Team in Thailand.
"Knowing someone for that long creates a bond that just got way stronger when we got to college together," Allison said. "This is UT; this is what we were dreaming about. Having that carry over from then to now has been really special."
Eckerman is a member of the nation's top-rated recruiting class and joins a program that has been to the NCAA Final Four each of the past three seasons.
"The team here, much like my team back home, has great chemistry," Eckerman said. "They're like my sisters. I'm used to being on a team that is always together because (former Waterloo East) Coach Ali (Rahnavardi) always had us spending time together."
Teammates' support helped Eckerman adjust to life away from home. Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott admits he was initially unsure of how she would balance school, athletics and motherhood.
"That's where I'm probably the most proud of her," Elliott said. "As a player, you want good things, but as a person she's done such a phenomenal job in terms of taking that responsibility and doing that with Cayde. They're in touch every single day and she's showing me pictures every single day.
"We've had a lot of talks and it's going to be great when they move down here. But for her, the most important thing she can do for her son right now is get a degree from the University of Texas. She realizes that and has done a good job of handling it."
Elliott has been thrilled with Eckerman's performance on the volleyball court, as well. She's been named the Big 12's Rookie of the Week twice while serving as a dynamic front-row attacker and blocker.
"She's got one of the best arms in the country," Elliott said. "She's got great vision, great hand-eye coordination and she's very physical."
Eckerman excelled as a back-row attacker in high school, and Elliott sees her getting closer to becoming a six-rotation player for his team.
"She can be one of the best in the country, there's no question about it," Elliott said. "She's just got to become invested in the other parts of the game - not just becoming a great attacker. ... If she does that and works in those areas, then she could be one of the great players that have ever been at Texas."
The Longhorns' coach points towards Eckerman's demeanor as a characteristic that separates her from most true freshmen.
"She's a little bit more mature because of the life experiences that she's gone through," Elliott said. "She's played so much international volleyball, and she has a lot more experience playing at high levels. She doesn't play like a freshman and she's not fazed like a freshman.
"We're very fortunate to have her. She's a special young lady, and we're looking forward to the next four years with her."