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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE– When she’s not in class or in the dorm room she shares with Milla Ciprian, Grace Turner can often be found at Memorial Gymnasium – even when the University of Virginia volleyball team isn’t practicing there.
“It’s like a second home,” Turner said. “I could probably spend the night there every single night if I wanted to.”
An outside hitter from Cincinnati, Turner is a 6-3 freshman with the potential to become an All-ACC performer for the Cavaliers, head coach Aaron Smith said.
“She got the talent, and she’s got the size,” Smith said. “But what I like the most about her is she’s relentless in her pursuit of being great. She’s a hard worker.
“She’s in the gym as much as anybody. You walk through the gym on an off day, and she’ll be in there getting reps. It’s awesome to see. She wants to help elevate this program.”
Players will text each other to see who’s interested in extra work, Turner said, and she’ll return to Mem Gym, often with setter Megan Wilson or fellow outside hitters Christine Jarman and Sarah Billiard.
“Whoever has the time,” Turner said.
On a team with only one player in her final year of eligibility – Olivia Wolodkewitsch – Turner is one of the reasons Smith is optimistic about the program’s future. Among the Cavaliers playing regularly this fall are freshmen Turner and Ciprian and sophomores Billiard, Jarman, Wilson and Alex Spencer. Billiard made the ACC’s All-Freshman team last season.
“Me, personally, I want to see this program make it to an NCAA tournament in the next couple years,” Turner said, “which I think is very reasonable, and I think that we can reach it if we’re willing to put in the effort and the work.”
Starting in 2013, the Wahoos strung together three straight winning seasons, finishing 18-14, 17-14 and 18-13 overall, respectively. But they dipped to 7-25 (4-16 ACC) in 2016, after which Dennis Hohenshelt stepped down as head coach.
Smith, Hohenshelt’s associate head coach, took over the program last year, and the Cavaliers finished 7-24 overall and 3-17 in the ACC. Virginia started slowly again this season but has won two of its past four matches.
On Oct. 5, UVA rallied in the fifth set to defeat Boston College 3-2 at Mem Gym. Last weekend, Virginia swept North Carolina 3-0 in Chapel Hill. For the ‘Hoos, who had lost 15 consecutive matches in the series, the victory over the Tar Heels was their first since 2008.
“The team is building a lot of momentum,” Smith said, “and while big picture our results aren’t what we want right now, we’re getting better every single week, and I think we have an opportunity to end really strong this year. I really do.”
The Cavaliers (6-12, 2-6) will play two ACC matches this weekend, both at Mem Gym. Virginia hosts No. 21 Louisville (15-4, 8-0) at 7 p.m. Friday and Notre Dame (11-7, 5-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Turner committed to UVA when Hohenshelt was head coach, as did Ciprian. But each had built a strong relationship with Smith during the recruiting process, and neither wavered on her commitment after the coaching change.
“This was the school they wanted to be at,” Smith said, “and this is the program they wanted to help make great.”
Ciprian is a 6-2 middle blocker from Creekside High in St. Johns, Fla., near Jacksonville. Turner graduated from McNicholas High, a coed Catholic school in Cincinnati.
“We knew that they’d both be capable of coming in and competing and potentially starting for us,” Smith said. “But both of them came in and had some adjustments. They weren’t quite ready to start right off the bat.
“Milla got concussed early in preseason and missed about 10 days, and that was huge for her non-development. So it took her a little bit longer to get used to [the college game].
“Grace, she came in in the preseason, and she’d have days where she was the best player in the gym. She had some opportunities early in non-conference play and would have a great game, and then she’d turn around and make a ton of errors. She just wasn’t quite ready yet. But we went back to her four or five matches ago and said, ‘We’re going to let you loose here and let you play six rotations. We need your energy. We need the spark that you can bring.’ So we let her go, and she had a great weekend against BC and Syracuse. She’s still not at her peak yet, but she’s getting better every single day.”
In ACC play, Turner is third on the team in kills, with 51. Billiard leads the Cavaliers with 100, and junior right-side hitter Jelena Novakovic has 76. Ciprian is fourth with 46.
Turner, a Cincinnati native, grew up playing soccer before switching to volleyball. (She played basketball, too, at McNicholas.)
She wanted to attend college outside Ohio, and she loved what Virginia had to offer athletically and academically. Still, she was nervous about making the jump to college volleyball, “because I’d been so used to playing the same girls at every club tournament, and then playing alongside girls that I’ve known since grade school,” Turner said.
“And so coming in it was definitely difficult. I wasn’t super strong. I wasn’t as experienced. I still am not. I still have a lot I have to work on and grow and improve. But I think that the coaching staff has made the transition easier, because they put a lot of belief in us. I know a lot of it is your ability to hit the ball hard and dig a ball, but a lot of it also comes from self-confidence. The team and the staff and the coaches have done an incredible job.”