Katie Lukes and Gabby Blossom

Blossom, Lukes reunite at Athletes Unlimited after historic season at San Diego

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: Jade Hewitt Media
Bruce Miles
Oct 23, 2023

Katie Lukes is Southern California through and through. She hails from San Clemente, on the picturesque oceanside drive between Los Angeles and San Diego. 

So it’s no wonder she felt at home studying and playing volleyball at the University of San Diego for her entire collegiate career. 

Gabby Blossom is a self-described Midwest kid from St. Louis. Though it might have seemed unlikely, even to her, she found a home at USD after a stellar academic and volleyball career at Penn State. 

Lukes and Blossom teamed up for one memorable season at USD, helping to lead the Toreros to the NCAA national semifinals. Today, the two fast friends are reunited in Mesa, Arizona, after being selected in the 2023 Athletes Unlimited Volleyball College Draft, and it’s as if they hadn’t missed a beat.

“I love playing with Gabby,” Lukes said. “She and I have become so close. She’s just such a fun teammate. She’s so supportive. She’s so energetic and competitive. It’s so thrilling as a volleyball player. I can’t wait to hopefully be on the same team one week and get that connection we had going in college.”

After being on different teams in Week 1 of Athletes Unlimited play this season in Mesa, Arizona, Lukes and Blossom got their wish in Week 2, when they both were drafted onto Team Edmond. 

“Katie is such an incredible leader, such an incredible person and teammate,” Blossom said. “To be able to be her teammate and be her friend and to grow close with her through that season (at Penn State) and being here (at Athletes Unlimited) has been such a special experience for me. She’s become one of my really, really great friends. Playing volleyball with her is so fun.”

Lukes and Blossom have become so close that it almost seems inevitable that their two divergent paths would eventually cross. For Lukes, going to San Diego seemed a natural choice. Staying there for the duration of her college career was the product of so many good things. 

“Oh, my gosh, so many things,” she said. “I think my teammates and my coaches, honestly. I loved everyone I played with. I loved my coaches so much. It was like a family to me. Obviously, San Diego is beautiful. I think what was most important were the people. I am still so close with all my old teammates and my coaches. I talk to them all the time. I just know they’ll always be in my life and that they care about me as a person outside of volleyball. I just knew that deep down. And I knew that this is something that’s so rare. I never, ever wanted to leave.”

Once Blossom finally got to San Diego, she didn’t want to leave either. Getting there in the first place was something else altogether, and it wasn’t a certainty until she officially committed. 

“I think everyone asks me that,” she said. “When I first committed, people were like, ‘That’s quite the mix-up,’ which for sure it was – opposite sides of the country, different conferences, completely different lifestyles. I went into the (transfer) portal and was like, ‘If I’m going to transfer, I want a completely different experience.’ I didn’t want to stay in the Big Ten. I said, ‘If I’m going to do it, I’m just going to go get a whole new life experience.’ How cool that I got to do that. COVID was terrible but the fact that I got to go get a master’s and go to a different school after I graduated from Penn State was important to me because I really wanted to graduate from Penn State. I love Penn State.”

While in the transfer portal, Blossom talked with several schools. At first, there was no California dreamin’ on her part. 

“San Diego reached out a few times,” she said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know. It’s far. I’m not really a California kid.’ I had a coach I really liked and trusted and he was like, ‘Give that staff a chance. That is the best staff in the country. Listen to them. Hear them out. Hear what they have to say.’”

Blossom wound up talking with legendary San Diego head coach Jennifer Petrie. The rest is history. 

“I finally talked to Jen, who is the most badass,” Blossom said. “You talk about a woman who is such a role model for all of us and does everything the right way in coaching. I talked to her and was like, ‘I need a visit.’ Jen was like, ‘If you come out for a visit, there’s no way you don’t come here.’ I’m like, ‘I’m a Midwest kid, Jen.’ I went out there like December 22. I was like, ‘OK, this is it.’ The staff, the way they talked about their program and the way they loved their players was so special. I knew that team had potential to be really, really good.

“I trusted my gut and committed, and it was better than anything I could have imagined.”

Transferring from one school to another is never easy. For Blossom having done that, she has never-ending respect from Lukes. 

“She came in her fifth year; I think that’s always a risk you’re taking,” Lukes said. “You’re leaving everything you know. Being in my fifth year at San Diego, I knew everything about San Diego. I knew everything about our program. So I think her coming in, honestly, it was the easiest transition ever. She bonded with us right off the bat. I think that’s what also makes her so special. We just knew she was so cool from the beginning.

“It honestly felt like she had been on our team for more than just a year. I feel like I’ve known her for longer than having played with her for only one season. I think she was super fortunate. We all brought her in. We were so fortunate to get her and have her be such a great teammate.”

The experience of attending two vastly different schools gave Blossom a unique perspective on life. 

“Going to Penn State, I learned so many life lessons,” she said. I spent four years there, my whole undergrad. I love it. That was a grind like no other. I made so many of my best friends and favorite memories there. When you transfer, when you’re a little bit older, it’s a weird experience because when I went to San Diego, I was going to a team that had leadership and had this established culture.

“I’m so lucky San Diego made it so easy for me to blend in. They welcomed me with such open arms. I was really lucky that we had really strong senior voices that were great leaders. We all helped each other find our roles. There’s so much perspective from two different programs. I’m a setter and being able to set in two completely different offenses and two completely different types of athletes really helped grow my game.”

Penn State’s pedigree is one of national excellence. Together, Lukes and Blossom were able to lift an already proud San Diego program into the rarefied air during a magical season that Lukes will never forget. 

“I think, obviously, it’s going to the Final Four, beating Stanford, will forever be my favorite moment of college volleyball,” she said. “That goes with the team that we had in my fifth year, the connections we had, the team unity that we had, the players on the court and on the bench. It was something I can’t even explain. I was really, really grateful to have that be my last full year in college and having it literally be like, ‘That was the best volleyball, the best team. Personality wise, it was so fun.

“I think we were proving to everyone we’re not really an underdog. At that point we were beating everybody. So yeah, it was totally taken as a sense of pride that we could wear ‘San Diego’ and create a new history for the university. It was really special because for us, we don’t always have that big, flashy stage and everything. We were just super grateful to be there. We were just gritty and wanted to win for each other. That was the only thing we were playing for.”


Bruce Miles has covered sports in the Chicago are for more than 40 years, including baseball, hockey, football, college and high school sports, and Athletes Unlimited softball. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceMiles2112

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