Pam Ward, covering women’s volleyball for ESPN, looked at a Miami Hurricanes roster recently and thought she saw a misprint.
She noticed that one of the Canes’ starting outside hitters, Taylor Hollins, was listed at 5-9, which is unusually small for that position in major college volleyball.
It was no misprint, but it’s not just Hollins who stands out on the Canes’ roster. Starting middle blocker Emani Sims is just 5-11, and no Miami player is taller than 6-1.
In contrast, every school ranked among the top five in the nation has at least four players 6-3 or taller on its roster, and none of those teams has an outside hitter smaller than 5-11.
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Top-ranked Penn State and No. 4 UCLA have outside hitters who are 6-5, and No. 7 Stanford has a player at that spot who is 6-6.
“Miami doesn’t pass the eye test,” Ward said in comparison.
Ward theorized that the Canes’ program is built in the image of its coach, Nicole Lantagne Welch, a 5-6 1/2 former All-ACC setter at Maryland from 1990 to 1993. She left Maryland as the school’s career leader in digs, assists and matches played.
“Nicole likes scrappy, little, athletic teams because that is how she played at Maryland,” Ward said. “Her teams have to pass well and play good defense to overcome taller teams.”
That’s exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago in Coral Gables, where the Canes upset No. 6 Florida State, a final four team in 2011.
“We play better when we’re the underdogs,” Hollins said. “We like it when people think less of us.”
On Friday, the Canes (12-3, 4-1) return to action against ACC leader North Carolina State (15-1, 5-0) at the Knight Sports Complex. The match starts at 7 p.m., and it’s important for the Canes because they are six spots away from cracking the top 25 in the national rankings.
Welch said she has no aversion to tall players — she just won’t sacrifice athleticism to get them. She wants players who can jump explosively such as Hollins, who can touch 10 feet, and Sims, who reaches a team-best 10-6.
“I pursue tall, athletic players — but so does Penn State, Stanford and all those other schools,” Welch said, referring to perennial powers. “We’ve gotten a couple of tall kids over the years, but they were raw players who maybe didn’t have top-five offers.
“I go for the tallest athletic kid I can sign. If they go a different route and we have to drop a few inches to get the athleticism we want, then we welcome that with open arms.”
Welch, a native of Encinitas, Calif., did just that with Hollins. The coach went back to her home state to recruit Hollins, who played for Long Beach Lakewood.
Hollins, who is the smallest starting outside hitter the Canes have had in the past decade, said she had offers from Pepperdine and Long Beach State but preferred to leave California for a new adventure.
Welch used her deep-rooted connections with the club coaches in California to help her land Hollins.
This year as a junior, Hollins has emerged as a full-time starter for the first time in her college career, and she epitomizes the Canes’ hunger for players who can move.
“Taylor is a great athlete, and she’s very confident,” Welch said. “She also has a bit of an edge to her. Nothing scares her, and you can see that in the way she goes up against bigger players.
“It doesn’t matter. She will find a way.”