Same Old Holly Carlton, Just (MUCH) Taller

Once a back row player, Holly Carlton now leads NVVA as a 6-foot-3 (and still growing) setter.

Holly, on the left, poses with her sister, Kayla, in the summer before her freshman year.
The second picture was taken at Christmastime some 16 months later.

- Mike Miazga.
Have you ever wondered what people would say if you showed up to work, school or church with a completely new look that made you practically unrecognizable? How many heads would turn? How many would even know it was you?
Northern Virginia Volleyball Association 16-1's Holly Carlton unintentionally did that over the past year.

Carlton, the team's talented southpaw setter, grew a staggering eight inches from her freshman year at Virginia's Potomac Falls High School to current day as a sophomore, sprouting from 5-7 to her current 6-3 height.

"At the beginning of freshman year on the volleyball team I was measured at 5-8," she says. "By the end of my freshman year I was 6-2 and I've grown an inch-and-a-half since then."
Those who don't know Carlton well at school thought a new student was roaming the halls this past fall.

"I got a lot of weird looks," she says. "People either thought I was my sister (Kayla) or a new person. I'd hear, 'Are you new here?' I would tell them, 'I've been here, I just grew a lot.' People who saw me go through it knew it was me, but people that didn't see me that often didn't recognize me."

The new found height has been a bit of a double-edged sword for Carlton. First, the bad parts:
"I was a little clumsy going through it," she says. "It was painful on my knees and on my back. Trying to get adjusted to my new body was tough."

Clothes also were a touchy subject. "Pants, shirts, everything didn't fit," says Carlton, who reports she now is the tallest girl in the school and trails only three boys for the honor of being the tallest student. "Some things still don't really fit. Pants and sleeves have been a bit of an issue, but I make the pants work with boots."

Potomac Valley senior teammate Makaely Thomas, an outside hitter and team co-captain this past season, can't recall seeing someone grow that quickly.

"Never in my life," she says. "Her and I were the same height the beginning of the year and now she's 6-3 and I'm 5-9 now. Once she got back to school she got questioned so much about her height."

The growing negatives, though, are dwarfed by the volleyball-related positives Carlton currently enjoys.

"I'm really grateful I am tall now," she begins, "because volleyball is one of the most important things in my life. I have a lot of confidence in myself and others find it in you as well. I guess I grew later than everybody else did. I thought I was going to be tall, but I got used to being short. I am super grateful that the growth spurt came, but I didn't think it would be this dramatic."

While Carlton, an A-B student at Potomac Falls who is active at her church, referenced a degree of clumsiness in getting used to her new frame, she notes her previous experience as a libero/defensive specialist tremendously helped her adjust to her new body at a quicker pace.

"As a libero, I liked how you were the first contact on your side of the net. You had the ability to start off with a good play," says Carlton, a setter/right side this past season in high school. "I liked being in control of the back row and being able to lead the defense. My experience in the back row helped me use my all-around skill that I learned as libero right from the beginning when I moved to setter. I'm glad I got the experience of growing later. I can continue to develop my all-around skills. Being the tall girl now, nobody expects me to be able to play back row."

Carlton admits the setting position took some getting used to at first. "It was very different," she states. "I had always played back row and then I had to transition to being an all-around player. I had to learn how to block and help on offense. I'm thankful that I've had great experienced coaches around that believed in me when I was 5-8 and still believe in me at 6-3. I've been going into practices 30 minutes early and (NVVA) coach Rodrigo (Gomes) has helped me with the transition to setter and with learning the mental part and strategies of the setting position."

NVVA teammate Abby Devido, a libero/defensive specialist, feels Carlton has adjusted to her new body with flying colors. "The way she grew was crazy," she says, "but she's not awkward for her height. She puts up a good block and runs and gets balls and is fast when she's doing it. Holly is a really good setter for only doing it a year. She's a joy to have on the team."

Gomes says Carlton's transition to setter is going smoothly thanks in part to that previous back-row experience.

"Holly has been doing really well," he says. "She already had the ball-control part of it down. Everything in the back row comes naturally to her. Now as a setter she is developing her hands. She's learned to play fast and how to run different offenses. She puts up some great balls left to right for our hitters and we're teaching her how to jump set. She does a very good job connecting with our hitters and middles. She's gradually picking up the position. She's also become a much better blocker."

Thomas also is in the camp of those who agree Carlton has taken her new gift and run with it.
"She grew more athletic and built up some muscle," she says. "Her height has really benefited her. Holly did very well this year and definitely benefited our team. She's a top-notch setter with great hands and really good instincts."

Gomes has watched Carlton develop into a strong leader as well in her first year with NVVA. "Holly is a good kid with great parents," he says. "On the court, she's a great athlete who is able to perform just as well as anybody else. She's a good leader. She leads a good offense. All the kids love her. She has her own way of gaining the confidence of her hitters."

Devido is a fan of Carlton's style of leadership. "Holly is commanding, but sensitive at the same time. She's very competitive and hates to lose. She cheers you on and at the same time pushes you to be a better player. She's a great leader for us on the court and she's very supportive of this team. She's grown as a setter. She adjusts to what people want as hitters. She's really taken off this year and developed. She's helped our team out a ton."

Carlton, who also plays beach volleyball locally in the summer, enjoys the setting position for much of the same reason she liked playing back row.

"I like being in control of the game," she says. "Winning and losing is all on you. A setter can change the outcome of a game. You have to decide which hitters will hit and which plays you are going to run. I always wanted to be a setter."

Carlton's play since moving to setter has attracted the attention of college coaches from the nation's elite volleyball programs. She now ranks as one of the best sophomore setters in the country.

"All of this is very humbling," she said. "I haven't kept track of how many, but there have been a lot of emails and letters in the mail. I've never been one of the players to excel. I always had to work hard to get a spot on the team and playing time."

But you won't find Carlton singing her own praises just because colleges have come calling. "I still have to improve on a lot of things," she says. "I have to improve on my continuity of sets. I'm still inexperienced as a setter. I have to keep improving on my defense and my coordination and I have to get stronger."

Carlton, who played multiple sports when she was younger and rode horses, became hooked on the sport after playing in the yard with Kayla, her older sister, who is now a freshman studying at Virginia Tech.

"We would practice outside until I got hit in the face. Then I would go inside," Carlton says with a laugh. "But I would go right out the next day. I fell in love with volleyball by playing with her."

Carlton certainly has come a long way since those days in the family's yard.

"I'm grateful to be in the position I'm in," she says. "I'm taking it all into perspective. I'm proud of myself for how far I have come and I am appreciative of the coaches that believed in me during some of the tougher times. There was a time where I wasn't a hot topic. Now I can see the results of my hard work."