Nov. 14, 2017

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Sarah Billiard had a team-high 18 kills in the University of Virginia volleyball team’s 3-0 win over Ohio at Memorial Gymnasium. That was on Sept. 9, and the victory raised the Cavaliers’ record to 4-5.

Billiard, a freshman from Matthews, North Carolina, had knee surgery not long after that match and didn’t play again until Oct. 20.

During her absence, UVA lost 10 straight matches.

Other factors, of course, contributed to the Cavaliers’ struggles while the 6-foot Billiard was out of the lineup. Virginia has no seniors in its rotation and relies heavily on freshmen and sophomores. Still, Billiard plays the position at which the team has the least depth — outside hitter — and her return has coincided with the Wahoos’ late-season surge.

“She’s had some ups and downs since she’s been back,” head coach Aaron Smith said, “but just her presence on the court, the energy she plays with, has given the team a huge boost and a huge difference in confidence.”

With less than two weeks left in its first season under Smith, who was the team’s associate head coach last fall, Virginia (7-20 overall, 3-13 ACC) has won three of its past six matches. Three of the Cavaliers’ four remaining matches are at Mem Gym, with two of them coming this weekend.

UVA hosts Miami (17-5, 11-5) on Friday night and Florida State (14-10, 8-8) on Sunday afternoon.

Its losing streak had reached 12 matches when, on Oct. 26, Virginia took the court to face Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. The Cavaliers were coming off a good week of practice, but they promptly lost the first set.

“After that set,” Billiard recalled, “Aaron came up to us as a team and said, `How are you guys going to respond? Are you going to hang your head, or are you going to play your butts off?’ ”

His players answered emphatically. Virginia won the next three sets.

“We put it all out there on the court,” Billiard said. “We dove for every ball. We played great defense. We hit well as a team. Our hitting percentage was high, and I think that was the point in time where we realized we can play at a high level. We can beat teams. We just have to be more consistent, so that’s what we’ve worked on.”

Billiard graduated in June from Covenant Day School in Matthews, a suburb of Charlotte. She attended the school, where her mother works, from kindergarten through 12th grade and played five years of varsity basketball and varsity volleyball. As a senior, she added track & field to her athletic résumé.

“I didn’t really run or anything, but I loved the high jump,” said Billiard, whose personal best in that event is 5 feet, 6 inches.

In the spring of her sophomore year, Billiard committed to UVA, whose head coach then was Dennis Hohenshelt, and last November she signed her letter of intent. In January, however, Hohenshelt resigned, and it was unclear who would follow him as head coach. When Smith was named Hohenshelt’s successor in February, Billiard could stop worrying.

“I wanted to come here. I loved Virginia,” she said. “I loved every aspect of this school, and when I heard that Aaron was going to take the role of the head coaching job, it just sealed the deal for me.”

Until this semester, Billiard had never had an injury more serious than an ankle sprain. But her left knee began hurting early in the season, and “it just continued to get worse and worse and worse,” she said.

An examination revealed a partially torn meniscus. “I thought about playing through the pain,” Billiard said. “I thought about maybe getting a shot, but since I couldn’t straighten my leg fully and I was having trouble walking and I could barely jump,” surgery was the best option.

As she went through her rehabilitation program, the losses mounted for the `Hoos.

“It was difficult, especially being on the sideline and wanting to be out there contributing energy and contributing some kills,” Billiard said. “My goal [during that period] was to be an encourager and to build my teammates up as best as I could. I could not control the fact that I couldn’t be on the court, so I was going to do my job of being an encourager really well.

“I wish this injury wouldn’t have happened at all, but it did. And so I’ve learned a lot through it. I’ve learned a lot of patience. I’ve learned a lot of perseverance. It’s kind of forced me to focus on what’s important in the moment, and I’ve had to grow up a lot quicker than I anticipated.”

Among her teammates, only sophomore middle blocker Chino Anukwuem, who’s also 6-0, jumps higher than Billiard, and Smith expects Billiard to reach new heights as her career progresses.

“She’s the type of player that loves the weight room, loves working out, loves getting stronger,” Smith said. “She came in a little bit ahead physically of a lot of college freshmen. If we get her in the gym in the offseason, she’s going to be a monster here these next couple years.”

Billiard is one of four freshmen in the program, along with her roommate Megan Wilson, Alex Spencer and Hannah Barcus, who’s redshirting this season.

“Sarah, Alex and Megan have all been asked to carry a pretty lead role in our lineup,” Smith said, “so all three of them have played big minutes and have done very well.”

Billiard has two younger brothers, as well as an older sister who plays volleyball at Berry College in Georgia. Billiard wants to become an elementary school teacher, and she hopes to enroll next year in UVA’s Curry School of Education.

This has been a challenging season for the Cavaliers’ coaches and players, but with such a young roster they’re confident better days are coming for the program. Two recruits signed with UVA this month, and Smith expects the class to grow.

“We’re excited for next year, too,” Billiard said. “because we have great girls coming in, and we’re going to be a more experienced team. We’re going to know how we each cope with criticism and how to work well on the court with each other. And so over time I think we’re going to build that trust, and that’s really important.”

For the Cavaliers, the goal is to use the final stretch of this season to build momentum for 2018.

“It’s pivotal,” Smith said. “Every day we’ve been talking about how every day’s important. While the results haven’t necessarily been what we’ve wanted, we want to take advantage of every opportunity to prove ourselves going into next year and to better our skills and to get used to the systems and take every experience in.

“We’ve just kind of focused on playing for each other and playing to get everything out of this season that we can and continuing to prove to ourselves that we can be a force next year. We don’t want to wait until next year and say, `OK, now let’s build.’ ”

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