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Maes taps into hotbed of talent

Virginia focuses recruiting efforts on Golden State, uses skillful tactics to lure Californian standouts

If ever you find yourself perusing the Virginia volleyball roster, you may feel compelled to do a double take and wonder whether or not the Virginia athletic department staff made a mistake.

One would quickly realize that more players hail from California - some 2,000 miles away from Charlottesville - than call Virginia their home state.

During the past several seasons, the Golden State has produced more Virginia volleyballers than any other state east of the Grand Canyon, and Californians now compose nearly half of third-year coach Lee Maes' three recruiting classes.

"California is one of the premier states that has a huge, huge area for talented volleyball players," Maes explained. "It's a sport that traditionally is very popular ... so it's a natural draw to go to an area of the country where you're going to have the sport of volleyball being a predominant sport for female athletes."

Maes was born, raised and began his coaching career in California. After graduating from Long Beach State, located just outside of Los Angeles, Maes served in a variety of capacities for the California volleyball staff for eight seasons and began to form a recruiting network of relationships along the way.

"We recruit [California] because ... coming from California myself, I've had a chance to form a lot of great relationships and rapport with a lot of those [club] coaches," Maes said.

Currently, five Californians claim spots on the volleyball roster - junior setter Beth Wildermuth, sophomore libero Emily Rottman, sophomore outside hitter Rachel Clark and freshmen defensive specialists Abbey Welborn and Sydney Shelton. Maes added that there are "unofficially a couple more California prospects coming into our program."

Although each current Cavalier from California was recruited differently, they all recalled similar reactions to being recruited by Virginia.

"I was surprised," Clark said, recounting that Maes had only seen her at one tournament.

"[Maes] knew a lot of my club coaches ... [but] to be honest, I had no idea about U.Va. Never heard of [it], never even thought of myself living in Virginia, completely across the country."

The adeptness of Maes' recruiting tactics ultimately pulled Clark and the other Californians to the state of Virginia.

"One of the attractive draws to a number of the California players is the fact that here's an opportunity to go and experience something different," Maes said, "I think change is an impetus for growth and when you have an opportunity ... to go to a school like Virginia, it's an opportunity [to] create your own identity. We really extol the virtue of having to go and make a name for yourself and create your own identity instead of being complacent in an environment that you grew up in locally."

But Maes is not the only one actively recruiting the top Californian high school athletes. Now, the numerous Golden State natives playing for the Cavaliers bond with younger Californians, thus serving as an integral part of the recruiting and ultimately the transition process.

As the eldest Californian on the roster, Wildermuth has been able to help comfort the younger Californians as they make the same transition across the country that she did. Wildermuth noted that Virginia is very different from California and even the new climate can be significant to a new recruit.

"I think it's really comforting having someone on your team that's from the same area as you, especially when you're missing home," Wildermuth said. "You can just talk about [the memories of] an In-N-Out Burger [or] See's Candies ... It's nice to be so far away from home but still have home next to you as well."

While Maes' strong recruiting skills and the reassurances of current Cavaliers lure Californians to Virginia, many of the women Virginia offers scholarships to often are already looking to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones and to experience something that most of their peers back home never will.

"I was torn," Wildermuth said. "I've been raised a [UCLA] Bruins fan. My dad went to UCLA ... [but] an opportunity came up. [Maes] knew my coach, so I came out here, visited and just fell in love with the school [and] the tradition."

Maes' recruiting efforts seem to have paid dividends thus far for the Cavaliers. This season, Wildermuth serves as a team captain, while Rottman leads the team with 219 digs. Clark has contributed 80 kills and 12 blocks in 2011, while Welborn and Shelton have recorded significant minutes as defensive specialists.

The inflow of Californian athletes has certainly helped strengthen Virginia's volleyball program and will likely attract even more talented volleyball players to Charlottesville during the years to come.