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A Free Spirit

"Recruiting? Do you really want me to go back that far? When I first saw her play during her junior year in high school, I actually crossed her off my list."

Maybe not the first thing an athlete wants to hear out of her coach's mouth, but for freshman volleyballer Paige Davis, Virginia coach Melissa Aldrich Shelton's confession is defining. After all, it takes a certain boundless energy to work your way into the starting lineup. Once an afterthought on a recruiting list, today Davis is proving she's got it.

Virginia women's varsity volleyball practice is an explosion of enthusiasm. Teammates high five and shout encouragement to each other constantly. But even among this pack of high-energy athletes, Davis' attitude stands out: peppy.

"Spunky," in the words of senior co-captain Deanna Zwarich. "She rarely has a bad attitude and adds a lightness to practice that doesn't come from anywhere else."

To watch Davis with her teammates for 20 minutes is to see that she is outgoing. She chatters away and laughs with the players and coaches as the team stretches and cools down. Davis is quick to make friends, according to teammate and fellow freshman Abby Whittenburg, and not just on the court.

"The volleyball players were here two weeks before school started so it was just us and the football team," Whittenburg said. "And by the first week, the whole football team had Paige's number and was calling her."

A converted track athlete who earned Academic All-District honors during high school in Texas, Davis didn't commit to volleyball until her freshman year when she began playing with the Austin Juniors Volleyball Club.

"She was not the greatest volleyball player when she started with us, really a track athlete playing volleyball," said Ted Wade, who coached Davis at Austin Juniors during her sophomore and junior seasons. "By the time she left us, though, she could do everything. She carried a huge offensive role on this team."

Austin Juniors took trips as far as Las Vegas and New Orleans, where Davis not only played in tournaments with her club, but painted the town as well.

My team "rode all the rides and saw the hotels in Las Vegas," she said. "We also went down to Bourbon Street in New Orleans and walked around."

You don't get to be a Division I athlete on sightseeing alone, though. As the 5-foot-11 blond fiddled with her toe ring, she pondered the amount of time she has invested in the sport.

"Volleyball is very demanding," she said. "It definitely keeps you out, especially during tournament season, since you're usually competing on Friday. You do get your Saturday nights, though."

She flashed a grin at the thought of Saturday night and eagerly explained her affinity for dancing. Think Sarah Jessica Parker in "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" - green eye shadow and all.

"Oh yeah, I took ballet forever when I was like 5," she elaborated. "But I mean club dancing. I listen to Jock Jams or upbeat music to get me psyched before each match. I have to have my music."

Her other pre-game ritual requires that she chew gum. It's strange, but it works. Davis has put down 221 kills this season and is averaging 3.45 kills per game, second on the team only to Zwarich. Defensively, she's averaging a team-high 3.41 digs per game. Those are great numbers for a freshman, but Zwarich saw them coming.

"I first met her when she came to camp the summer before her senior year," said Zwarich. "After sessions sometimes a few of us players would get a few of the campers together to play, and she would always play with us. I could tell she would be able to play Division I volleyball and that she would probably fit in with our team here at Virginia."

By all accounts, Davis's upbeat personality has allowed her to do just that. According to Shelton, "everybody loves Paige," but Davis' attitude goes beyond making her a popular teammate. It helps her maintain composure after matches, as well.

"A loss usually sticks with me longer than a win and I feel bad if I didn't play well," Davis said. "But by dinner I'm usually over it and back to laughing and joking."

"It seems like no matter what happens in practice, she's still the same old Paige," Zwarich agreed. "Boy crazy and always asking questions, wanting to know everything. I think she is very much a spaz ... a bit absent-minded in a funny way. She's got a million things going on in her head at one time, so that at any given second you have absolutely no idea what she is thinking about."

Davis's parents were a stabilizing influence for her as she juggled a hectic club team schedule with life at Westlake High in Austin. Family can only help so much once you've moved halfway across the country, though, and the adjustment to Division I athletics on top of an adjustment to college life was a little overwhelming for Davis.

"On a club team, you play with all your friends so I had to get to know everyone here, which was difficult," she said. "The more intense practice [at this level] is good for me, though, because I tend to get unfocused easily."

Shelton agreed: "Paige is very social so sometimes during practice it's hard to keep her focused on specifics."

Like many first years, she's not focusing on specifics in her academic career yet, either. She's considering a pre-Commerce track but is unsure what she wants to do after she graduates. In her first semester, she's carrying a variety of intro classes to help ease her transition into college.

"Right now I'm not taking anything too tough because I just don't have the time to deal with it," she said.

For now, kills, digs and spunky attitude are enough.


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