As a freshman at Incarnate Word Academy (St. Louis, Mo.), Erin Waller knew exactly where she wanted to go after she graduated from high school. At an age when most of her peers have trouble choosing what the wear each morning, Waller decided that Stanford University was where she wanted to spend her college years. It wasn't because the Palo Alto campus was a prestigious academic institution or had a successful athletic program. Rather, to the aspiring volleyball player, Stanford meant "Logan Tom."
In 2001, Waller witnessed Tom lead Stanford to its fifth national title with a 3-0 victory over Long Beach State. The dominating performance put forth by the two-time Olympian mesmerized the 14-year-old Waller, and from that point forward, she thought of nothing else but suiting up for the Cardinal.
"I always thought [Tom] was amazing and I loved to watch her play her all-around game," recalls Waller. "I saw all the success that she had and that's what I wanted for me."
And now, the 6'1" middle blocker will have a chance to follow in the footsteps of her idol, as she signed a letter of intent to attend Stanford last November.
When Waller began her athletic career as a first grader, she had no idea that an athletic scholarship would await her at the end of her prep days. Softball and soccer became the focus early on, but she picked up volleyball in the fourth grade and immediately fell in love with the sport. In the sixth grade, the multi-talented athlete split her time between being a starting pitcher in softball and riding the bench for her club volleyball team. Despite the obvious disparity in playing time, Waller took a chance at the end of the year and dropped softball so she could concentrate solely on volleyball.
"Softball is a team sport, but being a pitcher, there is so much pressure on you. I didn't really like it," comments Waller. "Volleyball is a team sport and it takes the whole team to win. I'm all about the team."
Once Waller committed herself exclusively to the hardwood, her game flourished to the point where she was no longer a sideline cheerleader for Team St. Louis. She worked hard to improve her volleyball skills and she used her time on the bench to absorb as much information as she could handle. In addition, a growth spurt later that year also helped further her volleyball education, allowing her to become more of a force up at the net. By the time tryouts rolled around the following year, Waller came back an entirely different player, impressing coaches and players alike. And her performance on the court continued to develop, especially under the guidance of coach Lisa Orlet at Incarnate Word. By her junior year, many local coaches were comparing Waller to Stanford and St. Louis legend Kristin Folkl, who led St. Joseph's Academy to four consecutive state titles in both basketball and volleyball.
A two-time Gatorade Missouri State Player of the Year her final two seasons as a Red Knight, Waller earned many accolades throughout her distinguished prep career. As a junior, she led her team to an astonishing 36-3-4 record and the Missouri Class 4 title. As a result of her on-court accomplishments, Waller was named PrepVolleyball.com's Junior National Player of the Year. The following season, Waller pushed her game to new heights, guiding Incarnate Word to another Class 4 state title, an unblemished 38-0-2 record, and a final ranking of No. 2 in PrepVolleyball.com's national rankings. After averaging 6.00 kills, 1.41 blocks, and 3.32 digs per game, Waller earned another award from PrepVolleyball.com, this time as the National Player of the Year.
Given that Waller was one of the elite volleyball prospects in the country, it would only be a matter of time before collegiate coaches would begin to battle for her services. The first recruiting letter she received came from Southern Miss when she was just a sophomore and by that summer, UCLA showed up at her team camp to watch her work out. When college coaches were officially allowed to contact Waller at the start of her junior year, she was flooded with recruiting materials sent by all the high-profiled programs, including UCLA, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame. While grateful for all the attention she was receiving from the various schools, Waller was dismayed at the fact that she had heard nothing from Stanford. The lack of interest by the Cardinal was disheartening, and as the days passed by, she gave up all hope of attending her dream school.
In the following months, the recruiting war heated up as coaches continued to bombard Waller with hundreds of emails and letters on a daily basis. The constant influx of mail was overwhelming and it didn't help that her father took such an active role in the whole process.
"My dad was so into it! He spent five out of seven days on the computer, emailing the coaches... He would make me stay home on Friday nights to write back to them and we'd argue about it all the time. He was crazy!" jokes Waller.
In addition to promoting the lines of communication between his daughter and her suitors, Don Waller also did his best keep her Stanford dream a reality. He discovered that the high academic standards of the prestigious university played an enormous role in the recruiting strategy of the coaching staff and that extensive research had to be done into a prospect's scholastic record before any formal contact was initiated. When he presented this newfound information to Waller, she did not believe him at first, assuming it was his duty as a parent to comfort her. However, in January 2004, her father was vindicated when a personalized letter from the Stanford coaching staff found its way into the Waller household.
Ecstatic that the Cardinal had finally showed an interest in her, Waller forged a relationship with head coach John Dunning and associate head coach Denise Corlett and worked hard to complete her admissions application. Later that May, Waller took an unofficial visit to Stanford and was enamored by the beauty of the 8,180-acre campus and the down-to-earth attitude of its students. A month later, Dunning informed her that she had been accepted to Stanford. Waller committed to him on the spot.
"John sent me an email: ‘Call me, we have the results.' I went downstairs all by myself and used my dad's business line. I didn't want anyone to sit down with me, I was so scared," admits Waller. "When he told me I got in, I started flipping out!"
When Waller arrives to The Farm in August, she will be armed with a polished and well-developed game. Versatility has been a main strength of hers throughout the years, and Cardinal fans will see that she is just as comfortable attacking and blocking up at the net as she is passing and digging in the back row.
Primarily a middle blocker for her high school and club team, Waller is accustomed to running a variety of plays out of the middle, but she has shown the ability to bomb away from either the left or right side. When she rotates to the back, Waller is not taken out or deemed a liability - due to her smooth ball control and steady defense. At a time when specialization is stressed at the prep ranks, Dunning will have the unique dilemma of finding a place on the court where his Midwestern star will be the most effective. In Waller's eyes, her position will not be nearly as important as the amount of playing time she will receive at Stanford.
"I just want to play. I don't care where," asserts Waller. "I'll do whatever [Dunning] needs me to do to get on the court."
Along with her highly-rated skills, Waller's intense competitive nature made her one of the most desirable recruits in the Class of 2005. A deep hatred for losing, coupled with an intense passion for athletics, has always fueled her to the top of her sport. Whether it was softball, soccer, basketball, or volleyball, Waller always did what was necessary to ensure her team of a win. The fear of failure was almost as big of a motivator for Waller as the thrill of victory and it was difficult for anyone to recall the last time she was on a sub-standard squad.
"She's always been on pretty decent sports teams and I don't think she's ever really known a losing season," states Waller's mother, Joann. "When you start off young, at five years old, and you win a lot, it's very hard to take a defeat."
Adds Dunning: "Part of what you want if you can get it in recruiting is you want people who have experienced winning a lot so that they will want to continue that feeling."
For all the success she has encountered in her life, Waller remains extremely humble and is the furthest thing from being a prima donna. When she discovered that she had won PrepVolleyball.com's National Player of the Year, the first thing out of her mouth was, "I shouldn't have gotten it. Cynthia [Barboza] is a better player than me." Her upbringing played a large role in her unassuming behavior, and her mother constantly reminded her to be grateful for everything that came her way. Waller's modest demeanor also stems from the fact that she places a high value on the bonds she has formed with her teammates.
"It is important for Erin to have close friendships on the team," says Orlet. "I think if she tried to separate herself as a superior athlete or student, it would have maybe caused some problems with her friendships."
Many players with credentials similar to Waller have experienced lackluster college careers for any number of reasons, including the inability to adjust to the higher level of competition and the stressful demands of being a college student. However, Orlet does not envision her protégée suffering the same fate and projects that Waller will impact the Cardinal squad next year.
"She hasn't met her ceiling yet," the coach declares. "With the right guidance and some weight training, I think she'll develop even further and compete at a place like Stanford."
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