By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press
UCSB freshman Taylor Formico won't be alone when she throws herself onto the Thunderdome court tonight.
On either shoulder will be a volleyball legend.
On one side will be cousin Kerri Walsh, the echo of her angelically encouraging words lifting Formico's spirit.
"She'd come to my club tournaments in L.A. to cheer me on, and she's just the sweetest, most generous, motherly person you'd ever want to meet," she said of the three-time Olympic champion.
On the other side will be UCSB coach Kathy Gregory, chewing on Formico's ear in a devilish attempt to toke her competitive fire.
"When she's hard on me, I know she's just trying to make me better, and that's a challenge that I love taking on," she said.
The angel and devil in the details have Formico posting otherworldly numbers as the starting libero of the UCSB volleyball team. Her 400 digs entering this weekend's matches — which include tonight's showdown with Big West Conference leader Hawaii — have her on pace to break the league record.
"She could become the best we've ever had at that position," Gregory said. "We wouldn't be anywhere this season without her, by far.
"I don't want to put any more pressure on her than I already have, but a girl like Taylor comes along only once in a lifetime."
The ability to handle pressure, however, is just how a rookie became the steady hand on a volleyball team that's still coming to grips with itself. The Gauchos, 8-10, were unable to get a handle on matches against the likes of nationally ranked UCLA, Oregon, San Diego and Pepperdine that all ended in 3-1 defeats.
But that just makes tonight's challenge of No. 8 Hawaii more enticing for UCSB's 5-foot-7 libero.
"I'm a pretty competitive person," Formico said. "I have three brothers and I'm the only girl, so I grew up having to be competitive."
It starts with her dad, Mike Formico, whose sister Margery is Kerri Walsh's mom.
"The whole family is a big influence on her, in particular her father," Gregory said. "He supports her and pushes her, too. She got 32 digs the other night, but his response was, 'She could've gotten six more.'
"We've asked her to lead this team by example and do more — asked everyone to be part of the solution and not the problem — and her father really gets that. He's instilled some unbelievable values in her."
Formico got interested in volleyball after noting the success of her cousins — Walsh included — and joined a 12-and-under club team when she was only 10.
"I became obsessed with watching Kerri, and following what she was doing in the Olympics," she said.
She won her own Junior Olympic bronze medal as the setter for a City Beach Junior team, and she also won California Division 2 Player of the Year honors after guiding St. Francis High of Mountain View to a CIF State title.
But she wasn't tall enough for NCAA Division 1 recruiters to give her much of a look at setter.
Her club coach told Gregory that she would make a great libero for the Gauchos, however.
"Once I met her father and mother (Ramona Marr), and saw what kind of commitment they were willing to make for her to come here to Santa Barbara, I decided I really wanted her," Gregory said.
That meant hiring a trainer to improve her fitness as well as her defensive skills in volleyball.
"Even when she was in summer school here, there weren't enough hours in the day to suit her," Gregory said. "She's always asking for extra reps.
"Her work ethic and tenacity, and her ability and desire to play this position for us, is the reason we're competitive this year. She filled a big hole for us."
UCSB lost a record-setting libero with last year's graduation of Chelsey Lowe, who set a new Gaucho mark of 652 digs. But Formico has a good chance of writing a new record.
"I'm really proud of that, of coming in here over the summer and working so hard to get into that position," she began. "But to be honest, I'm looking a lot more at our team record. Like against Pepperdine, I could've done more, especially in the first few games, to help us win that match."
Formico isn't the only freshman making an impact for UCSB. Britton Taylor, a 6-3 middle attacker, ranks ninth in the Big West with a hitting percentage of .266. Opposite hitter Jaylen Villanueva has also seen plenty of playing time, and Gregory now plans to call more on outside hitter Alex Barbeau and defensive specialist Shauna Klein.
"One time I looked out there and I had five freshmen on the floor," Gregory said. "It's exciting because they come mentally prepared to compete every day and bring something to the court.
"I know the potential is there, especially with some of the good recruits we'll have coming in next year."
This season got off to a ominous start when the Gauchos struggled to beat Iona and then were swept by Connecticut.
"I was thinking, 'Oh my, this could be the toughest season we've ever had,'" Gregory said. "And then Taylor got 34 digs to beat Loyola Marymount single-handedly. No matter what they hit, she dug it.
"The LMU coach told me afterward that he'd never seen a libero play like that before."
Even in defeat, she won the respect of UC Irvine's coach two weeks ago.
"He said he couldn't believe how good she was," Gregory said. "No one knew where she'd come from because she'd never played libero before.
"She just goes for the ball. Some people watch the game, but she doesn't. She just reacts to the game. She's very humble, but she sets a standard for the whole team, even the upperclassmen, with how aggressive she is."
The coach admits that she has been the devil on Formico's shoulder, prodding her along.
"I can say anything and she doesn't take it personally," Gregory said. "I get on her all the time and she can take it. She's just so appreciative of the opportunity that she's getting.
"The greatest thing is that she understands where I'm coming from."
And where that can take them all.
Mark Patton's column appears on Thursday and Saturday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org