October 8, 2010 8:56:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Kayla Woodard''s path to Starkville wasn''t conventional.
It''s not often volleyball players from small schools in the state of Alabama go largely unrecruited, accept an offer to walk on at a Division I school, earn a scholarship, and become one of their team''s most valuable players on and off the court.
But thanks to plenty of hard work, focus, and exceptional time management skills, Woodard has blazed that path.
"Kayla has been since the day I got here one of the hardest workers in our gym," Mississippi State volleyball coach Jenny Hazelwood said. "She is just a great person. The girls enjoy being around her. She sets her standards really high in the classroom, which is something we love to be around. Nobody has a stronger work ethic."
This weekend, Woodard will lead the Bulldogs against the University of South Carolina at 7 tonight and against No. 2 Florida at 1:30 p.m. Sunday in the Newell-Grissom Building.
MSU (10-6, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) is coming off a 3-2 victory against Georgia on Sunday. The win was the program''s first in Athens, Ga., since 2005, and helped it eclipse the number of wins it had all last season (9-22, 5-15).
Woodard, a 5-foot-5 senior libero, or designated defensive specialist, has helped the Bulldogs move forward in Hazelwood''s second season as head coach. She had a season-high 31 digs against Georgia. For the season, she is fourth in the SEC in digs per set (4.67), and leads the team with 266. Her numbers are up just a little bit from last season when she averaged 4.35 digs per set and finished with 474 digs.
"She is going to go all out all of the time," Hazelwood said. "I think the best thing we have seen in almost the two years we have been here is how much her game has improved. She is averaging so many digs per set, and she is a steady serve receive passer. Her commitment in the gym has led her to become one of the strongest liberos in our conference."
Tina Seals, who was a head coach at Northwest Shoals (Ala.) Community College before becoming the coach at MSU, offered Woodard an opportunity to walk on to the team. Woodard said she knew Seals from the work she did at her high school and from her coaching in junior college. She didn''t imagine she would get much playing time in her first season, but she earned playing time in all 29 matches, and ranked third on the team with 25 starts.
Woodard has continued to improve and moved from walk-on to a scholarship player as a sophomore. Hazelwood said Woodard has grown in all areas and has learned to be in the right places and to read what is going on on the other side of the net so she can be in the best position.
Statistics are just part of the equation. Woodard''s work off the court shows she is someone who epitomizes what it means to be a student-athlete. The valedictorian of her senior class at Addison (Ala.) High School, a Class 1A school, Woodard has received the volleyball team''s Newsom Award the past two seasons. The honor recognizes the team''s top scholar-athlete.
Woodard also received her bachelor''s degree in elementary education (with a 4.0 grade-point average), and hopes to complete work on her master''s degree in the same field next year. Her goal is to be a teacher, but she isn''t sure where she will end up.
"Doing my best in the classroom has always been really important to me," said Woodard, who was valedictorian of her senior class. "I always put a lot of pressure on myself to do that because I know I can. ... All through high school I played every sport, so I was used to being busy and having to do that, but not at this level, so it was a transition."
Woodard said finding the best way to manage her time and to take advantage of free moments in the day is key to juggling academics and athletics.
"I don''t know many (players in her shoes) who would be able to accomplish what she has accomplished in her four years of playing," Hazelwood said. "She is a great athlete, and it took her commitment to getting better and working hard and learning as much as she could to developing into player she is today."
On the court, Woodard said the speed of the game was different than anything she had experienced. Still, she knew she could adapt and credited teammates early in her career for helping her find her niche.
As a result, Woodard has matured is an essential ingredient to her team''s attack. Her passes typically are the ones that allow MSU to run an offense and to get the ball to the hitters in the best situation.
"Confidence on the court is something that has been building," Woodard said. "It has gotten a lot easier and I became a lot more confident at my position."
There''s no doubt Woodard will take her work ethic and drive to be the best wherever she goes and help motivate the next generation of student-athletes. She just might encourage another volleyball player to follow an unconventional path because, as she has shown, if you believe you can do it and stay focused on that goal, you can accomplish anything.
"I work really hard, and that has been my goal," Woodard said. "I want to lead by example and to always give my all. My goal is to always show my teammates we need to work hard and to get better every day. It is motivation for me to come out here and work hard and to be good for my team and know I am taking care of my job and doing my part."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.