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It was junior high and everyone else was doing it, so she did too, not realizing it would become a passion her family could share. Danielle Carlson is a rising senior at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, but more importantly, she is also a rising star on the school’s volleyball team. By all accounts, she should shine brightly this season.

“I’m really excited about this year. Most of the team knows each other and are friends from playing club,” she says with a smile. And while it is too soon to know where she wants to go to college, she says, what she does know is that she wants to play volleyball.

“She’ll be a good college volleyball player,” says Danielle’s club coach Mike Maas, who has no doubt she’ll be snapped up before the year is out. That is a conclusion with which her high school coach agrees.

According to Chip Fenenga, the summer of Danielle’s freshman year she hit a ball out of the middle that knocked a player to the floor. That put her on the radar of college scouts. “Her sophomore and junior years, she showed how good she was. As she worked to get better, she did whatever was asked of her,” Fenenga says. “She wants to learn and succeed, and treats her coaches and teammates with respect. I know many colleges have expressed interest, and she would be a jewel to build their program around,” Fenenga concludes.

The sport has become one of Danielle’s greatest passions – one she has come to share with her little sister, Alexandra, and her dad. Living just about as far away from the school and still being in the district as you can get, commuting to summer practice at the high school or for her club team is an hour-plus drive either way. It’s a journey the threesome is happy to make.

“They have a great dad,” says Maas. “He really takes an interest and keeps them focused on morals and integrity – which is really a rarity these days.”

“My dad is my biggest supporter,” Danielle says, smiling. “A lot of times he’ll stay for practice and even play if there is a position open.”

He has never grumbled about getting up at 5 a.m. to drive to club games in Los Angeles. While Danielle acknowledges that some teens might not appreciate having a parent or sister always in their shadow, Danielle sees it as a plus.

“Danielle was very shy as a freshman coming in from Hollister Ranch. The way she has grown, matured and especially how she has worked promises her a bright future. She is one of the best athletes and kids I have ever known,” says Fenenga.

Danielle started out playing center, but has moved to the perimeter. “We lost a really good outside,” she says by way of explanation. And while she loves the quickness of the inside, she is finding she likes all the good sets she gets playing outside – especially those from Alexandra, who seems to instinctively know what Danielle likes, she says.

Danielle isn’t sure which position she likes better. She likes them all, and is hard-pressed to name what she finds hardest about the sport.

“Maybe because we’re all girls, and we sometimes fight like sisters?” she wonders. “But by the next day, we’re over it and are friends again,” she adds, and then notes that it is the very same state of affairs that constitutes the best part of being on the team. She smiles, pokes at her bagel and ever so slightly shrugs her shoulders. “We’re family. My best memories from high school are going to be the ones from being on the team.”

“Danielle is good at many things. Her family and many friends keep her grounded. She always seems to take joy in others’ successes and doesn’t get caught up in small dramas,” Fenenga concludes.

Maas, who has worked with Danielle for four years, sees only good things in her future. “She’s so competitive and such a perfectionist. She’s never satisfied.” Once that’s corrected, she’ll be set, he says.

What would satisfy her, says Danielle without the slightest hesitation, is to graduate undefeated in league – and by that she means for all three years she has played on varsity. Even though a handful of the team’s top players have moved on to college, Danielle sees no reason for the team to not to keep up their winning streak. “I want to make it as far as we can go in CIF. I want to be undefeated again in league,” she says calmly and confidently, as if it were no big deal.

They are goals, if achieved, Danielle will play a big part in making come to fruition. “Last year she led all of CIF in hitting, and just lights up the court with effort and enthusiasm. She can pass nails, hits with power and range, serves tough and plays inspiring floor defense. She is a fantastic volleyball player and a great kid,” says Fenenga of the teen who is known for coaching younger players, practicing with the high school’s boy’s team and who has won beach volleyball competitions. She sometimes even trains with the UCSB women.

“I know that her brilliant artwork – a subject she plans to major in college – led the yearbook to ask her to do the cover,” says Fenenga. “Danielle is the kind of kid who motivates and doesn’t alienate. She is always up, positive and full of laughs with a deep competitive fire.”

There is little doubt in the minds of those who know Danielle best that this season the spunky teen will light up the court and the lives of those with whom she interacts.

struax@syvjournal.com