Austin’s athleticism adds to big potential

By Mike Romor

While her size seems to be a hindrance for her position, freshman outside hitter T’ara Austin’s speed and athleticism makes her the most athletic player on volleyball’s roster.

Judging by her build, the 5-foot-8 freshman out of Joliet Central High School looks to be a defensive specialist. Anyone doubting her front row capabilities is proven wrong as soon as a ball is set. That’s when Austin displays a vertical, with graceful hangtime, which makes up the height disparity separating her from most hitters.

“It’s like a dual package; it’s my vertical and speed,” Austin said of reaching sets at the highest point. “If I’m up before the [opposing] hitter, I have an option to swing wherever I want, but at the college level you find that there’s a block there and it’s not as easy as it was before. My vertical definitely helps me get past that.”

Austin played club and high school volleyball as a middle blocker. Since becoming a Huskie, the transition to outside hitter has been challenging, but her athleticism helps her fit in the new role.

“She’s an amazing athlete, an amazing talent,” said head coach Ray Gooden. “There were a lot of positive things that we saw with her, and we have good history with her club and former coaches. The biggest thing that sold us was when she came to camp. She did a great job in camp.”

Gooden recruited her based on her athleticism. He praised her speed and quickness.

“I think her ceiling’s a really big deal,” said Gooden, who has cranked out two All-Americans in just three years. “She’s faster than anyone we’ve ever had, quicker than anyone we’ve ever had and more explosive than anyone we’ve ever had.”

Despite the praise, Austin has only seen action in nine of the team’s 24 matches. As a freshman, she is still very raw and is rapidly developing as an outside hitter in the NIU system.

Her abilities are evident, whether it’s in pregame warmups or during scrimmages in practice. Teammates cheer for the freshman during warmups when she loads for a perfectly timed swing on a well-set ball. They cheer because her vertical takes her to a level most 5-foot-8 people never reach.

Senior setter Kayla Zeno matter-of-factly declared “T,” as she is known by her teammates and coaches, the highest jumper on the team.

Austin’s potential shows why Gooden has had patience with her transition to NCAA volleyball. Austin is far from polished; she makes errors most freshmen commit. She mistimes some sets and she’s still far from perfect in serve receive.

Austin’s speed and agility should increase over the next few seasons, but she knows she has to dedicate more time to her weaker areas now to reach her ceiling.

“Transitioning here, it’s work,” Austin said. “I’m working at it and taking it a day at a time. I’m nowhere near where I want to be in back row. I have a lot of work to do.”