A 9-year-old Holly Carlton followed her older sister, Kayla, to their quiet backyard in the Eastern Loudoun subdivision in Sterling, Virginia, with a volleyball in hand. The two went to a portion of their backyard that was fenced off for a makeshift volleyball court.
“(Kayla’s) three years older than me and growing up, of course, I wanted to do everything that she did,” Carlton said. “My interest in volleyball really started with her.”
Every day, the two hit the ball over a net that sagged too low in a too-small portion of the backyard. She remembers those days as the spark to her burgeoning volleyball career.
Still, her competitiveness grew.
Carlton, after a day of practice with the Gators, sat with a reflective smile as she pondered that first obstacle in her volleyball career.
“She’d hit me in the face every day. I kid you not, every single day,” she laughed. “It was frustrating, but I was always out there the next day.”
Kayla was relentless. She hit balls for hours at Holly to work on her own swing. Holly recalled many beatdowns -- the volleyballs to her face -- handed to her by Kayla. She’d always have to wait her turn. She’d always have to take one for the team, all to help her sister.
But still, her enthusiasm flourished.
That competitiveness and enthusiasm took Carlton from her hometown in Virginia to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, before she transferred over to the University of Florida, where she is now a focal point of a volleyball team looking to make another run to the NCAA Championship. But it all began in a backyard, helping her sister and dodging volleyballs.
Holly Carlton did not begin her career a 6-foot-7 beast that could crush balls down on defenders like asteroids raining down against Earth. She was, instead, a 5-foot-8 back-row setter her freshman year at Potomac Falls High School in Virginia, trying to find a spot on the team.
Carlton played sparingly in her first two years and averaged fewer than one kill per set.
There was no huge growth spurt. There was only a slow, gradual transformation over time. By the beginning of her junior year, Carlton grew to 6-foot-5 and found her spot in the front row.
“It was a big transformation in a lot of areas in my life, not just volleyball,” she said. “It had to take some getting used to how people looked at me.”
Carlton developed new skills with her new frame and combined what she’d already learned while she was undersized. Carlton still had her great passing and digging abilities that she learned before and could now dominate on the attack with her size. When she finally put it all together, she became a versatile weapon.
“I had to learn the skill set of a smaller player before and now had to bring that into a bigger body,” Carlton said.
Carlton played in 207 sets in her final two years and tallied 714 kills and 144 assists. She led the Potomac Falls Panthers to a VHSL 5A state championship game appearance in November of 2015 and was named to MaxPreps’ 2015 2nd Team All-American Girls Volleyball Team her senior year.
That same month, she signed her letter of intent to attend the University of North Carolina.
North Carolina was Carlton’s last recruiting visit on a long list of schools she was interested in. She had all but made up her mind to attend a school on the west coast but would visit Chapel Hill anyway. Carlton was so sure she was headed west that she and her dad, Brian, drove down out of courtesy.
That was all it took.
She immediately got along with the players she met on her visit and liked the system the staff ran. Carlton recalled how beautiful the campus was and how nice the people were on her trip.
Carlton also met assistant coach Eve Rackham, a former setter for UNC who accumulated 5,700 assists in her four years with the UNC from 1999 to 2002. Rackham still holds the assist-per-game record (12.58) for the Tarheels.
Carlton knew Rackham could advance her passing and setting skills even more and help her earn a spot in the rotation. It all seemed to be a perfect fit.
But not everything lived up to expectations once she got there.
Carlton was immediately thrust into position battles at the setting and right-side hitting positions against three seniors. She eventually came up short and would be subsequently redshirted before her first season began.
“At first, being young and in a new environment, it can kind of feel like a failure,” she said. “But I had good people putting it in perspective for me. It is hard being patient and waiting your turn. It was just time to humble myself again.”
This was nothing new for her. Even in the backyard with her sister, she was willing to wait her turn. She was willing to take one for the betterment of the team.
She waited then. She waited her turn in high school. She could do it again.
The wait was worth it.
In 2017, then a redshirt freshman, Carlton used her versatility to rotate between setter and right-side hitter to dominate from all over the court.
She played all six rotations. Most All-American-caliber setters can maybe pull off being in three different lineups before returning to the bench.
She led the UNC squad in assists (595) and service aces (29). Her solid play eventually earned her a spot on the 2017 U.S. Junior National Team where she made some new friends: current University of Florida players Paige Hammons and Rachael Kramer. She also met an up-and-coming player who had just committed to UF and had won the Gatorade National Player of the Year award named Thayer Hall.
Even with her impressive play at UNC, Carlton was unsettled. The things that sold her before seemed to push her away. Six other UNC players transferred or medically retired in the offseason. Carlton had also dealt with her own lingering ankle injury for most of the campaign. Rackham, who Carlton had hoped would help progress her game the most, accepted the head coaching job with Tennessee in January.
With the uncertainty of her future on a shifting roster, she knew it was time for a change. The University of Florida’s coaching staff was ready.
Two years prior, Florida was on the short list of schools she was interested in. The long history of success at the program enticed Carlton. However, the commitment of another setter, Cheyenne Huskey, occupied the spot Carlton pined for. It didn’t seem like the move to UF’s roster was an option.
When head coach Mary Wise and the staff heard Carlton was planning on transferring in 2018, they made their move once again. Huskey had decided to transfer to Texas State in January, once again providing an open opportunity.
“We felt that the fact that she had good relationships with our current players that we might get her to at least visit,” Wise said. “We were able to get on her list of potential visits that she was interested in.”
Other schools on her list included championship contenders like Kentucky, USC and Penn State. Heavy competition.
But Wise’s accomplishments caught Carlton’s eye. Wise became the third female coach to accrue 900 wins in her career during her 27th season in Gainesville and made an NCAA Championship appearance in 2017.
“I was a little nervous to talk to Mary for the first time,” she said, “but she’s such a calming and confident presence that it’s easy to talk to her. She knows what she’s doing, and it was very clear that she had a lot of confidence in her program here.”
The coaching staff at UF convinced her. On April 24, 2018, Carlton decided to transfer to UF to play with Wise and a few of her USJNT teammates.
“We felt good about her visit to UF, but you never know until you get the final word,” Wise said. “When she called and told me she was coming here, we were pretty excited, to say the least.”
All smiles on the surface, of course, but Carlton knew she was taking a big risk. She would be giving up a full scholarship at UNC as well as the playing time she had earned there. She spoke to her parents and talked to her best friend from home, Grace, about the decision, looking for confirmation that this was the right move. But what really drove it home for her was a phone call with Hall where they talked about her big decision.
“I remember that it wasn’t weird at all,” Carlton said. “The call made me so much more comfortable. The first thing Thayer said was, ‘How can I help you?’ I think that’s what represents this team.”
Carlton was welcomed as soon as she arrived. Her chemistry with the team blossomed during summer training and a trip to St. Augustine with her teammates. That chemistry eventually translated to the court.
She quickly earned a spot on the starting rotation for Florida as both a right-side hitter and a setter. She admits she has exceeded her own expectations. She is second on the team in total kills (237) over halfway through her first season with the team, which trails only Hall, the friend who comforted her on the phone and convinced her to come to Gainesville with her.
Carlton posted a career-high 19 kills against Northern Arizona on Sept. 7 and has not slowed down. The left-handed hitter has swung for 2.44 kills per set and has logged 82 blocks as of today.
Her success came because of the rapport with the team on the court and the guidance she has gotten off it.
Carlton credited her parents and her teammates as people who helped her make the transition to Gainesville easier. She’s also close with her mentor Kevin Sides, a staff member with Athletes in Action at UF, a global sports organization that works with players and coaches live a balanced life with sports, education and Christianity, according to its website.
“I just listened to her, honestly,” Sides said. “I let her talk and would help her where I could… She was nervous coming here at first, as most freshmen are, but she really became part of the team very quickly.”
Brian and Robin watch all of her games on TV and, when they can make it from Virginia, watch her weekend matches. They’d like to come back around Thanksgiving. Every time they watch her, they can still see that fire and willingness to take one for the team that they saw in their backyard so many years ago.
“She certainly got her poise from her sister,” Brian said. “She never gets too high or too low so it’s easy to miss but, believe me, her fire is there and always will be.”
Follow Dylan Rudolph on Twitter @dyrudolph and contact him at [email protected]or.org.