Oct. 12, 2017

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The roster for the University of Virginia volleyball team lists the height of freshman Alex Spencer as 5-11. That might be a bit generous, UVA head coach Aaron Smith suggested Wednesday, but Spencer politely disagreed.

“That’s accurate,” she said, smiling. “With my shoes on, yeah.”

Whatever the case, this much is undeniable: Spencer is shorter than most Division I outside hitters. That hasn’t stopped her from becoming a significant contributor for Virginia, which plays two matches against ACC foes this weekend: Friday (7 p.m.) at NC State and Saturday (5:30 p.m.) at North Carolina.

“She jumps really well,” Smith said. “She plays hard. She’s super dynamic. She’s a little undersized, but has played club volleyball at a very high level and has been asked to do a lot on her club team and has been in the top 10 in the country in terms of her age group moving up.

“So she’s come from a high-level background, which we really liked about her. She’s going to be a really good player in this league.”

Spencer is from North Canton, Ohio, about 55 miles south of Cleveland (and 20 miles south of Akron). She starred at Jackson High — home of the Polar Bears — and for the Academy Volleyball Cleveland club. Along the way, she found ways to compensate for not hitting the 6-foot mark.

“I’ve just learned to mix up my shots, hit around the block, work with it,” Spencer said. “I think growing up with it, I’ve just gotten used to it and learned to deal with it.”

With only Spencer, classmate Sarah Billiard and junior Harley Sebastian at the position, the Wahoos were exceptionally thin at outside hitter to begin the season.

“You need four or five at least,” said Smith, a former UVA assistant who succeeded Dennis Hohenshelt as head coach this year.

“Going into the season and having [only] three outsides is never a comforting feeling for a coach, but I knew that all three of them could compete and carry a pretty good role.”

Early in the season, though, a knee injury sidelined Billiard, who’s still recovering, and Spencer’s role grew significantly. She’s handled the heavier workload well.

Spencer is second on the team in kills, with 122, behind 6-3 Jelena Novakovic, a transfer from Penn State who has 182 kills. But Spencer contributes in other ways too.

“When you think of an outside hitter, you think of scoring, you think of blocking,” but Spencer has that six-rotation skill set,” Smith said, referring to the versatility that allows her to defend, hit and pass instead of specializing in just one area.

“She’s been one of our best defenders. She’s been one of our steadiest serve-receive passers. She gets served 50 balls a game, because teams are going after her, because she’s the first-year that’s having to do everything.

“You can load her up with anything and everything. You can [critique] her, and she can hear it, process it and move on to the next thing.”

Spencer’s parents call her Alexandra, her given name. Her teammates and friends generally call her Alex. Smith calls her Spence.

By any name, she comes from an athletic family. Her maternal grandfather, Fritz Kungl, was an All-America forward for the University of Akron men’s soccer team in the early 1960s, and her mother, the former Lisa Kungl, lettered in volleyball at Ohio University.

Spencer’s sister, Stephanie, plays volleyball at Tennessee, to which she transferred this year after two seasons at Georgia Southern.

The elder Spencer, who’s listed at 6-1, considered UVA after deciding to leave Georgia Southern, but the sisters weren’t eager to compete with each other for playing time at outside hitter.

“Since we were both the same position, we didn’t want there to be any conflicts,” Alexandra said. “We’re super close, so we just didn’t want that to conflict at all.”

Alexandra was introduced to the sport by Stephanie, not by their mother.

“My sister started playing, and she just one day decided to try out for the sixth-grade volleyball team,” Spencer recalled, “and every day she would pull me outside and make me practice with her so she could make the team. We just both started playing all the time.”

Spencer, who rooms with teammate (and classmate) Hannah Barcus, is in the kinesiology program in UVA’s Curry School of Education. Spencer said she chose the University because it “was just the best school academically and volleyball-wise for me.”

The Cavaliers’ head coach when she committed was Hohenshelt, who resigned in January. Smith, UVA’s associate head coach in 2016, was named interim head coach immediately. Still, a period of uncertainty followed for Spencer.

“There was a thought in my mind, `What if Aaron is not the coach? What if the [next] coach doesn’t want me still? What do I do?’ ” Spencer recalled.

She need not have worried. In February, Smith was named head coach, and “I was ecstatic,” Spencer said.

In five seasons under Hohenshelt, the `Hoos posted an overall record of 69-88. They had three consecutive winning seasons before dropping to 7-25 (4-16 in ACC play) last year.

Smith expected his first season as head coach to be challenging, and that’s been the case. Injuries have hindered the Cavaliers, who were already one of the ACC’s least-experienced teams. They have only one senior on the roster, Haley Fauntleroy, and she’s not in the regular rotation.

Heading into the weekend, Virginia is 4-13 overall and 0-6 in the ACC.

“We’ve competed,” Smith said. “We just haven’t been consistent enough to win. I think the girls see that. They actually know that they can beat the teams that we’ve played. But you can’t give away one or two games and then expect to be able to beat a team that is maybe a little bit more mature, a little bit more veteran.”

Spencer said the Cavaliers’ spirits remain high. Their goal this season is to lay a foundation for future success.

“We’re a young team,” Spencer said. “We’re not going to be the best in our confidence. I just want us to work well together and make goals for ourselves and achieve them.”

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