Oct. 1, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a volleyball season that’s little more than a month old, Anna Walsh already has been named ACC freshman of the week three times.

The accolades for Walsh please her head coach at the University of Virginia, but they don’t surprise him. Dennis Hohenshelt always expected Walsh, a product of the elite Texas Advantage Volleyball club in the Dallas area, to have an immediate impact in college.

The TAV coaches “know how to train kids, and the kids all come out of there ready to play,” said Hohenshelt, who’s in his fourth season at UVa. “Anna’s played in a lot of big-time matches, she’s played against a lot of big-time players, and so nothing really fazes her.”

A 6-2 middle hitter from Grapevine, Texas, Walsh was named The Dallas Morning News’ player of the year as a junior at Colleyville Heritage High and again as a senior. Before receiving either of those awards, she had committed to Virginia, the first school to offer her a scholarship.

Hohenshelt came to UVa in January 2012 from Penn State, where he had been an assistant coach in a women’s program that won NCAA titles in 2007, ’08, ’09 and ’10. His rebuilding project at Virginia was still in the early stages when he began recruiting Walsh, “and we sort of had to sell her on where we were going,” Hohenshelt recalled this week.

For Walsh, whose family has strong ties to TCU and the University of Texas, the players she met during a visit to UVa, including current teammates Jasmine Burton, Lauren Fuller and Natalie Bausback, were “very welcoming,” she said.

“So that helped,” Walsh said, “and Dennis being the coach he is, coming from that background [at Penn State], that was a big attraction, and Virginia is a great school.”

Committing to UVa was a leap of faith for Walsh, “but it just felt right,” she said, even if friends and classmates wondered why she didn’t choose TCU or Texas or another school in the Lone Star State.

“I think it’s good to get away from home,” Walsh said.

She’s had plenty of experience doing so as a Cavalier. Virginia’s past eight matches have been on the road: in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Washington, D.C.; Durham, N.C.; and, most recently, Winston-Salem, N.C.

The Wahoos (9-4 overall, 1-1 ACC) haven’t played at Memorial Gymnasium since Sept. 5, when they defeated Iowa State 3-2 there to win the Cavalier Classic. Thankfully for the `Hoos, that streak ends this weekend.

Virginia plays its ACC home opener Friday against Pittsburgh (12-2, 2-0), then hosts Virginia Tech (10-4, 1-1) on Saturday. Both matches will start at 7 p.m.

“It’ll be very, very nice [to play at Mem Gym again],” Hohenshelt said. “It’s been a good three weeks, and we’ve learned a lot about ourselves, but it’s time to come home.”

Fans who have yet to see Walsh play aren’t likely to have trouble locating No. 10 on the court, and not only because of her skills.

“There’s a brashness about her, and that’s sort of rubbed off on everyone else,” Hohenshelt said. “There’s a `Hey, this is what’s going to happen’ type of attitude with her. And so it’s very refreshing.

“She’s played in a lot of big-time matches throughout her career in terms of high school and club and on big stages. And so she has a great attitude and disposition about her. Some people think she’s cocky and over the top, and I would say she’s as far from that as humanly possible. I just love how she plays. The kids love playing with her, and she’s sort of changing the personality of this team in a way.”

Apprised of Hohenshelt’s comments, Walsh smiled.

“Yes, I like to be fiery,” said Walsh, who’s fourth on the team in kills and second in blocks. “I think it’s fun. If you play with confidence, your teammates feed off of it. I think fiery’s good, and not enough women out there play with fire.”

Walsh has three brothers, one of whom, Thomas, plays football for TCU, where their father, T.J., is a theater professor. As a girl, Walsh dreamed of playing in the WNBA. Once she reached high school, though, her focus shifted to volleyball.

As evidenced by the ACC honors she’s earned, Walsh is adjusting well to Division I volleyball. Still, Walsh said, she would not describe her transition as “seamless.”

Preseason workouts “definitely kicked my butt, and I definitely stay humble, to say the least,” Walsh said. “When we watch film and practice, I still get chewed out. But my teammates have helped me. Honestly, when you get an award, it’s your team behind you that helps you get it.”

Walsh is the first player in UVa history to be named ACC freshman of the week three times. Her most memorable performance came last Friday night against Duke in Durham. Walsh contributed 18 kills and five blocks, both career highs, and had a .500 hitting percentage in the Cavaliers’ 3-1 win over the Blue Devils, who had won 17 straight in the series.

“It was very fun,” she said. “It had been very hyped, and we knew it was a huge game, so we knew we all had to perform.”

Twenty-four hours later, though, the `Hoos stumbled, dropping the first two sets at Wake Forest. Virginia rallied to force a fifth set, but Wake came away with a 3-2 victory.

“That was disappointing,” Walsh said. “In the ACC, you can’t take teams for granted. That’s one of the big things Dennis said. Every team, no matter what their record is or anything, they’re going to come out and try to win.”

The Cavaliers have made only two appearances in the NCAA tournament, in 1998 and ’99, and Walsh is eager to help them earn another invitation.

That’s now a realistic goal for the `Hoos. When Hohenshelt took over at UVa, he inherited a program coming off three consecutive losing seasons. His first year was challenging — Virginia finished 9-22 in 2012 — but records of 18-14 and 17-14, respectively, followed in ’13 and ’14. Moreover, the Cavaliers finished above .500 in ACC play in each of those two seasons.

The recruiting classes that entered UVa in 2012, ’13 and ’14, Hohenshelt said, helped elevate the program, and he believes this year’s freshman class, which consists of Walsh, Coral Kazaroff, Kat Young and Harley Sebastian, will have an even greater impact.

“There’s steps,” Hohenshelt said. “I don’t think you can go [directly] from Step 1 to Step 6. I don’t think that happens. I think you can go from Step 1 from Step 3 and go from Step 3 to Step 5 or Step 6. And I think that’s where this ’15 class will take us.”

Having players such as Walsh, who starred for a high-profile club, has “helped significantly with recruiting,” Hohenshelt said.

Texas Advantage Volleyball “is very much in the spotlight,” he said, “so it’s significant for us to have a recruit that’s in the spotlight. The younger kids that are playing 15s and 16s, they see that and see her play on these national-championship teams and go, `Oh, yeah, I’d love to play with her.’ So it was a really big piece of the puzzle for us to have someone out on that stage.”

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