Leah Sully Lights it Up for UCSB

Leah Sully Lights it Up for UCSB

Leah Sully lights it up for UCSB

Leah Sully has been on the road so long with UCSB's volleyball team that even their practices have happened away from the Thunderdome.

"Our first day in here was just yesterday," she said, "and when I walked in I went, 'Wow! Everything's so much brighter!'"

Chalk it up to new lights - and a new Leah Sully.

The star outside hitter, exiled to the shadows last season after a serious knee injury, is shining for the Gauchos once again.

"I have to say she's even better now, physically, than she was her freshman year," UCSB coach Kathy Gregory said.

The Gauchos are better for it, too, having weathered one of their toughest non-conference schedules in memory. They enter Friday's home opener against Pacific with an 8-6 record. That includes a split of last weekend's trip to start Big West Conference play, highlighted by a 3-2 win at 21st-ranked Long Beach State.

"I see only good things for this team," said Sully, a 5-foot-11 redshirt sophomore from Irvine's Woodbridge High School.

It was hard to see through the team-wide tears of last year's season-opening trip to the Cal Tournament. It all came to a crashing halt in the second set of a match against the Bears when Sully tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee while hitting a tight set on the outside.

"I didn't collide with anyone, just landed funny," she said. "It was pretty emotional, especially with all the seniors on that team. Everyone was pulling to have a really successful season - so yeah, it was tough. It was hard on everyone."

UCSB, which had freshman Kara Sherrard and little else remaining on the left side, finished at 16-13 and out of the NCAA playoffs.

"It was unbelievably devastating because Kara was, at that time, a walk-on, and we really didn't have any backup if Kara got hurt," Gregory said. "We had high expectations. It wasn't just Leah's hitting. She is the best server, the best passer, the best defender. We lost all that."

Sully's 52 aces as a freshman had led the Big West, ranking 25th in the nation and sixth all-time at UCSB. She was also second to the Gauchos' libero in digs with 327 and third in kills with 223.

"What I do believe as a coach is that when someone goes down, you take that for somebody else," Gregory said. "Kara Sherrard would never have been able to make Big West All-Freshman and even play now... So I think Leah kind of took one for Kara."

The darkness lingered for Sully, however, for a full month after her surgery.

"It was definitely a hard thing to accept, and I felt bad for myself for a little while," she said. "I mean, it was a lot even coming to practice and just watching and not being able to work on things.

"There was the hassle of having to drive to all my classes, and I was on crutches for a little while. It was something I've never experienced before, so it wasn't pleasant."

Her parents, Gary and Julie, kept telling her to look at the bright side: An extra year of school, and a season to study the game from another vantage point.

"You lose a year and miss something, and so you can go one of two ways," Gregory said. "Either you're too afraid, or you miss it so much that you come back stronger.

"I think she appreciates it all so much more. She stayed all summer and worked out four, five hours a day."

The turning point came last April during UCSB's spring season, when she was cleared to play in the back row for the last two tournaments.

"Once I could serve, and just touch a ball again, it was really enlightening for me," Sully said. "I felt, 'Oh, I can do this! I know how to play volleyball again, and I am capable!'"

But a return to the left side was going to require an extra step during the summer. Gregory pointed her toward the P3 (Peak Performance Project) training center.

"Even though our training services are great, there are just way too many people to take care of everybody that specifically," she said. "The only way that she would be able to play as a hitter would be if she did P3. It's the individual treatment. It's like having an extra two coaches.

"Once I convinced the father that it was worth the money, that she would otherwise only play the back court, I told Leah, 'It's up to you ... Do you want to play all the way around?' It's a good thing she said yes or we would've been in a difficult situation and wouldn't have this record."

Sully said P3 worked to get her more extension through her hips and strengthen everything involved in the jumping process.

"That helped me to get a couple more inches on my jump," she said.

Sully, who was touching around 9-foot-5 as a freshman, was reaching 9-8 by the end of this summer, Gregory said.

"I could see what she was doing at P3, as well as with Jeremy (Bettle, UCSB's assistant athletics director for sports performance)," she added. "Her body got in such better shape, and she lost weight, too. She got stronger."

Sully now ranks second on the team in both kills and aces behind All-America middle Stacey Schmidt, and she's also second in digs behind libero Chelsey Lowe.

"I would like her to be more outgoing on the court, but mentally she is one of the toughest players," Gregory said. "She can take a lot, and I think that's going to carry her through. We are depending on her."

Sully said she's expecting "a few butterflies" on Friday when she makes her first home appearance since 2009.

"But it's going to be really exciting, too," she said. "I love playing here."

Even a harsh spotlight feels warm to her now.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: mpatton@newspress.com