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Going Gaucho: Uhland signs volleyball full ride to UCSB
Feeling like a proud parent, Christopher Abruscato held back the tears as he observed his prized pupil.
Earlier this month, East Nicolaus High's head volleyball coach was at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center with his Orangevale Volleyball Club team competing in the Far Westerns National Qualifier Tournament when he decided to pop over to see his former setter.
Competing at the tournament was Haley Uhland, his three-year starter at East Nic who plays club with Cal Synergy of Roseville.
As she skated across the court, commanding the offense like a tactician, all Abruscato could remember was the little girl who told him "volleyball is yucky" when she was 10 years old.
"I just sat back and watched her like she was my daughter," said Abruscato, who has been coaching the sport for 20 years. "She is one of the top five players I have ever coached."
Also in the stands in Nevada that day was Dan Ahiers, an assistant with the UC Santa Barbara volleyball program, who had been following Uhland since February.
UCSB head coach Kathy Gregory only needed to see Uhland once to be convinced of what Ahiers had been telling her for three months — this could be the Gauchos' new starting setter.
Uhland signed a national letter of intent on Monday at East Nicolaus High to play volleyball with the Division-I Gauchos, securing a four-year, full-ride scholarship.
Gregory, who has been the program's head coach since its inception in 1975, said she expects more out of her setters than any other player on her team.
"It's the most difficult position and you can't take any plays off," Gregory said. "I was very impressed with (Uhland's) work ethic and she has all the qualities I need coming in here. She has a great set of hands and a good future."
Gregory wants Uhland to come in right away and compete for the starting setter position along with another true freshman. A junior college transfer could be in the mix as well.
UCSB plays in the Big West Conference alongside three-time national champion Long Beach State, UC Irvine, Cal Poly, Pacific and UC Davis, among others. The Gauchos have been to 28 out of the last 31 NCAA Tournaments.
In Gregory's setter-oriented 5-1 offense, Uhland's ability to efficiently run the scheme will be tested right away.
"Mentally, she has the mind to be a setter," Gregory said. "She's going to have to lead the team."
Uhland said she is completely comfortable with that and accepts the challenge of fighting for that starting spot as a freshman.
The A-D's Player of the Year is heading down to Isla Vista early to start working out and getting to know her teammates' strengths and weaknesses.
Uhland said she was speechless when Gregory gave her the call to let her know she was a Gaucho.
"I've always wanted to play in college, but I never thought it would be a D-I, full ride," Uhland said. "It was absolutely amazing, the best thing that could happen. Since freshman year I wanted to play volleyball in college."
To accomplish that goal, she joined Cal Synergy at age 16 to gain exposure.
Under the tutelage of Matt McEvoy, a former college setter, Uhland fine-tuned her game while playing against some of the best volleyball players in the state.
Ahiers first saw Uhland at a January tournament in the Bay Area. He watched her again in Las Vegas and Reno.
McEvoy said the fact that Uhland has the chance to grab a starting spot as a freshman says a lot about how hard she worked to better herself.
"She had the best natural hands of any setter I've had over the last five or six years," McEvoy said. "She improved dramatically. She's not the tallest, or fastest kid, but one of the most skilled kids on the court."
Not only did the prowess of the volleyball program entice Uhland, but the beauty of UCSB's campus, located right next to the Pacific Ocean.
Gregory said she was almost in a recruiting war with conference-rival Pacific over Uhland. After making her official visit, Uhland said her decision was pretty easy.
"It's beautiful down there," Uhland said. "How could you say no to that?"
When Abruscato took over at East Nicolaus in the fall of 2008, he remembers looking into Uhland's eyes and knowing she was a player who wanted to grow.
With her royal blue "UCSB Volleyball" T-shirt on and a library full of well-wishers observing, she penned her signature on a piece of paper.
Signing that contract doesn't fulfill her life goal, it just means it's time to go back to work.
Hitting the weight room, running sprints in UCSB's home gym the Thunderdome, learning an offense and taking on the toughest position on the court.
Uhland has a job to win and she said the competition begins today.
"I won't stop until I get a spot," Uhland said. "That's all there is to it."