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Scott leaves as Cavalier record setter

At least this rejection letter was personalized. Some students don't even get that concession.

"Dear Mary," it began, "Thank you for your interest in the University of Virginia volleyball program..."

But no thanks. We don't need you right now. Good luck with the rest of your search, the letter concluded. Then a junior at Phoenix's Xavier College Prep High, Mary Frances Scott felt what most college-bound teenagers experience when they discover their dreams trashed by a single sheet of parchment: resolve, humility, heartbreak.

"A good friend of mine's father had gone to law school there and he talked up U.Va. so much," Scott says six years later. "I took a trip out here to visit and I found it so beautiful. I fell in love with it right away."

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    Like all of the members of the University's Class of 2000, it has been a long journey for Mary Frances Scott. But she's had help along the way.

    First, there is Virginia volleyball coach Melissa Aldrich Shelton, the author of the rejection letter, who later found herself penciling Scott's name in the starting lineup for the freshman's first game in the fall of 1996. A year earlier, Shelton thought she had Scott's position at setter filled by another player, but that athlete left the program unexpectedly. The rest of the story belongs to Scott, who walks the Lawn this weekend as one of the finest in Cavalier volleyball history.

    She started that first game - essentially because Shelton had no other players capable of setting - and went on to rewrite Virginia history at the position. Scott graduates as the Cav record holder in career assists with 6,044, nearly double the old mark of 3,071. She is second on the all-time ACC assist chart and her remarkable average of 12.46 assists per game places her the Division I top 10.

    However, Scott's greatest impact came not as an individual but as a team player. Her senior year in high school, the Cavs finished 9-22 (1-13 ACC), with little hope of national success. Four years later, Virginia has transformed itself into a top-notch East Coast program with two straight NCAA Tournament appearances and an incoming recruiting class that is ranked sixth in the nation.

    During her stint at setter - where she started nearly every match - Scott led Virginia to an 87-47 record, the best four-year span in program history. Winning became ordinary for Scott's Cavaliers; the team lost only 12 of 31 matches in 1999 and eight of 34 in 1998. That first win four years ago, however, wasn't so easy.

    "I didn't know until that day that I was going to start," Scott said. "I was nervous. Here I am, this little first year, and I had to catch the ball every time it went over, and everybody's looking at me to call the plays. I was so scared."

    It has been a long journey, but she's had help along the way.

    There is James Riopel, head of the University Biology Department. This weekend Scott receives her degree not as a volleyball standout but as one of the University's 234 graduating biology majors. In her four years under Shelton's watch, Scott was named to the All-ACC rookie team, the All-ACC first team, and most recently the American Volleyball Coaches Association's All-District team, but her diploma says simply, "Bachelor of Arts. Biology."

    For a student who spent most of her college life contemplating offensive formations rather than protozoa, defensive switches rather than amino acids, Scott excelled academically in a field she has wanted to pursue since childhood.

    Though she was raised in the desert climate of Arizona, Scott has a near-obsessive addiction to the ocean and its creatures. She scuba dives every chance she gets and lists sharks as her favorite animals, despite their scarcity in her native Phoenix. She even served a spring semester as an undergraduate advisor in Riopel's introductory biology lab course, all while participating in spring practice and daily workout sessions.

    "It's always difficult to balance" academics and athletics, Scott said. "You give up things, you sacrifice things, but I think there are things that are worth giving up. I definitely feel that I got the better end of the deal."

    It has been a long journey, but she's had help along the way.

    There is the Scott family, who has come in droves from across the country to watch their blond-haired jewel walk the Lawn. There is father Steve, who played baseball at Claremont McKenna College. Mother Charlotte starred in basketball and volleyball at Pomona College, while brother Steve Jr. played baseball at Florida. Needless to say, Mary hails from an athletic family that understands the rigors of college sports and therefore could support her like no other could.

    But it is also a very successful family. Only cousin Kiki Vandeweghe, a former NBA All-Star, made many marks professionally in athletics, but other Scotts carried their college educations to become lawyers, doctors and businesspeople. If Mary Frances has her way, you can add marine scientist to that list too.

    From Mary's family comes not only her athletic bloodlines and her penchant for success, but also her greatest inspiration: older sister Haley, a former swimmer at Notre Dame. Eight years ago, on the ride back from a swim meet in Illinois, Haley's team bus flipped over on the interstate. The crash killed two teammates and left Haley paralyzed. For Mary, who watched her greatest role model eventually learn to walk again, the experience was life-changing.

    "She has changed the way I look at life in general," Mary said. "I take everything into perspective. Losing one game isn't the end of the world.

    "You realize that you take things for granted. For the rest of my life, I'll appreciate the fact that I'm able to do things not everyone can. The perspective that she gave made me appreciate the little things in life."

    It has been a long journey, but she's had help along the way.

    There are the teammates. Those 6,044 assists are nothing without the 6,044 kills that followed or the thousands of digs that preceded them. The most frequent recipient of Scott's deft passes was senior middle blocker Jessica Parsons, who finished fourth in Virginia history with 1,347 kills. Outside hitter Whitney Bilger, the third member of the team's graduating class, praised Scott for playing the sport's most challenging position with graceful ease.

    "I felt lucky to have her as a teammate," Bilger said. "She is an excellent athlete and brought her all to every match. She is a wonderful leader."

    With one last step off a podium, Scott's journey ends this weekend along with thousands of other students. There will be a lot of looking back on the past, she says; a lot of laughing and a little crying. After the diploma is framed and tucked away, Scott plans to pursue a graduate degree in the marine sciences after spending a couple of years teaching at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Fla., where she will coach the volleyball team.

    As for that rejection letter that came in the mail six years ago, Scott has almost forgotten all about it.

    "I can't believe how fast it's gone," Scott said. "I love this school. I'm sad to see it end."

    And all the people who helped along the way are sad to see her leave.