USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring the 12 athletes in the running for the Gatorade National Athlete of the Year, which will be announced July 16 in Los Angeles. Today's spotlight: Lauren Carlini (volleyball).
Thank mom for all of those nights at the gym.
It was there that West Aurora (Aurora, Ill.) grad Lauren Carlini got introduced to volleyball at the age of 3. Ten years later she would receive AAU All-American honors for the first time. Now, Carlini is a finalist for the Gatorade Athlete of the Year award.
The University of Wisconsin-bound standout said she first started playing around with a volleyball as a young child at her mother’s adult rec league games. Within a couple years she was playing for a club team, and by the time high school rolled around, she was geared up and ready to go.
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Carlini led her team to a 32-6 record and a trip to the Class 4A sectional semifinals. During her time at West Aurora, Carlini helped the team win a regional championship and back-to-back league titles, post a school-record 32-win season and secure a ranking among the state’s best teams, including a top-10 finish in the Chicago Sun-Times 2012 girls volleyball team poll.
Kari Nicholson, head coach at West Aurora during Carlini’s four-year stint as a varsity letter winner and three-time captain, said the 6-foot-1 setter/right-side hitter is always working at making her game better. Well, it’s hard to get much better than Carlini was during her four years of high school.
She was named the 2012 Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year, a 2012 Volleyball Magazine First-Team All-American and a 2012-13 American Volleyball Coaches Association Under Armour First-Team All-American.
PrepVolleyball.com named Carlini the nation’s top recruit in the class of 2013, with publisher John Tawa calling her “the ultimate physical setter” and “one of the most competitive, hate-to-lose players” he has ever seen.
Carlini earned MVP honors at the 2011 USA Volleyball High Performance Championships after leading the U.S. Girls’ Youth National Team to a gold medal. She was also a member of the team that played in the 2011 FIVB Girls’ Youth World Championship in Turkey.
And the accolades just keep coming. Last week, Carlini took home MVP honors in leading her club team, Sports Performance 18 Elite, to an AAU national championship in the 18 Open division, Carlini’s first national championship.
“Lauren is very motivated and very dedicated to being the best player she can be,” said Nicholson, West Aurora’s coach. “I expect Lauren to accomplish any goal she sets forth. I think Lauren would love to be playing volleyball professionally or at an Olympic level, and I can totally see her doing that.”
We caught up with Lauren before her trip to Orlando for the AAU Girls’ Junior National Volleyball Championships.
What has contributed most to your dominance on the court?
Carlini: I think it’s just the kind of fire and passion I bring to the court. I like to think I’m one of the more fiery people and I’m more verbal on the court than most. I just love competing. That’s one of my main things – I just compete no matter what, whether it’s in volleyball or in life. Competing with passion is how I play, and that’s what I bring to the court.
Why did you choose the University of Wisconsin as the place to continue your volleyball career?
Carlini: Oh, I love Wisconsin. It’s such a great tradition-type school. They have great fans and the school has stayed with them through thick and thin. Their campus is beautiful, and it’s close to home. I just loved everything about the program and everything they represent, and how they uphold themselves and present themselves. It’s a really classy program and I’m really excited to be a part of it.
How do you maintain focus both on and off the court?
Carlini: In total, I probably get about a month break throughout the year. And even when I have my breaks, you still have to stay tuned with your skills and you just have little things you have to fix and tweak. I really enjoy working out in general. I love weightlifting. I like running. So that helps contribute to my focus. And volleyball is one of the main aspects of my life, so it’s kind of hard to forget about it and not focus on it.
What are some personal or team goals you want to achieve in the next four years?
Carlini: I don’t really have any personal goals. But this fall I have to learn my role on the team and know my position, whether I’m running a 5-1 or a 6-2. So I want to definitely help us move up in the Big Ten. By the end of the four years, I hope to help the team out in any way I can to a Big Ten championship – or two – and hopefully make it into the national championships.
What plans do you have for the remainder of the summer?
Carlini: The rest of the summer I plan to work out, do a lot of swimming and yoga, things like that just to keep in shape. I’m going to go up with the (Wisconsin) team in July for about a week and train with them, just to get intermingled with them and start learning everybody’s tendencies. Then in August I’m going to start school and we’re going to start preseason.
You’ve won numerous awards during your career and have the chance to take home the Athlete of the Year award. What does it mean to you to be recognized with these awards?
Carlini: It’s so crazy! I never would have thought a few years ago that I’d be in the position I’m in and be receiving all of these amazing awards and accolades. It’s just really humbling to even be recognized as one of these athletes among all of the other people that are chosen. These are top-notch athletes. It’s kind of weird and I’m still trying to adjust to the kind of attention and the level that I’m expected to be at.
What is your ultimate goal within the sport?
Carlini: That one’s really easy – hopefully I make it onto the Olympic team one day.