UCLA's Karsta Lowe Blossoming With Fiery New Attitude
Don't be fooled by the arc of Karsta Lowe's story, not by her seemingly unlikely tale of a walk-on-turned-star. Nor by the laissez-faire demeanor she's sometimes shown on the court.
This late bloomer is in full bloom in her senior season for the UCLA volleyball team. And really, it shouldn't be that much of a surprise.
"Yes, she came here as a walk-on, but that was just lucky for us," UCLA coach Michael Sealy said. "My expectations for her were great."
And she's exceeded even those. Lowe, the Bruins' 6-foot-4 senior outside hitter, may be having the most dominant individual season in the country.
She has set career highs and school records for kills in a single match (33 vs. Oregon on Oct. 15). She leads the nation in kills per set at 5.96 and points per set (6.60), and ranks fifth nationally with 590 kills. She has more than 1,200 kills in her career and is making her way up the school record charts in that category as well.
Lowe will be a short-list candidate for national player of the year, looking to get UCLA back into the national championship picture for the first time since her freshman season in 2011, the year the Bruins won the NCAA title when she was a role player. Lowe is now at the top of the Bruins' marquee as UCLA wraps up its regular season against USC on Friday (11:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
"She's had a pretty unbelievable season," Sealy said.
But Lowe doesn't exactly qualify as a breakout. Hers has been a steady progression of skill, size and power, starting with her junior year in high school, the first time she dedicated herself to the sport.
And in some cases, passion.
"She's a North County San Diego kid, she's pretty beachy, laid-back," Sealy said. "But she doesn't play that way anymore."
Lowe admits that people who have watched her might have gotten the wrong impression.
"In the past, I think people would watch me and think that it doesn't look like I care," Lowe said. "But I feel like I'm pretty high-energy, pretty feisty on the court. I don't think I'm laid-back."
Sealy described Lowe as having "alter egos."
"Sometimes she's pretty fiery and sometimes she's pretty laid-back, but I think volleyball means more to her now," Sealy said. "In the past, I think she would tell you that she was kind of a cruiser, but she's more dedicated and more inspired."
Sealy said in past seasons, he had to work hard to tap into that inspiration.
"I'd have to say things like, 'Hey, remember how you played against so-and-so two weeks ago?'" Sealy said. "But now, you can see her as she's peppering for warm-ups that she's engaged and fiery.
"Let's call it a maturity. I think she's discovered a deeper passion for volleyball. And I think she has senioritis and she wants to make one last push."
Lowe wouldn't have imagined this ending when she was a raw high school volleyball player at La Costa Canyon High School. She had played a lot of different sports as a kid, played "pretty competitive" tennis in her first two years of high school, and hadn't committed to volleyball as her main sport until midway through her prep career, when she was forced to choose because both sports were played in the same season.
"I think I liked the team aspect and that was the appeal of volleyball for me," Lowe said.
And there was one other thing.
"At that time, as a 16-year-old, I felt like my dad would have a lot less influence in volleyball than he did in tennis," Lowe confessed. "I wanted that independence, I think."
But as she focused solely on volleyball, her talent began to emerge.
"I didn't really grow into my body yet," Lowe said. "I didn't get my skill set until later."
She said she wasn't being recruited too heavily. She had talked to some Division I schools, visited a few schools on the East Coast. But none were among the country's top programs and most were too far from home.
UCLA, however, was on her radar. Her parents and brothers had gone there and she wanted to go to Westwood. Brother Griffin competed on the men's club crew.
"I kept thinking that if I go to UCLA and sports don't work out, at least I'm still at UCLA," Lowe said. "So many kids around the country want to be there.
"But to be honest, I didn't really think about not being on the team."
Neither did Sealy, who said he never viewed Lowe as a true walk-on. He awarded her a scholarship midway through her freshman season.
"We didn't have the [scholarship] money in that year at that time and I knew we would find it for her when it opened up," Sealy said. "She had come and met our incoming class and loved UCLA. It was lucky for us that her family was willing to make a big commitment to UCLA, because she was emotionally invested in us."
Still, Sealy said that Lowe has exceeded his expectations.
"She's an international-caliber player, a future Olympian," Sealy said. "To be that big, to hit that hard, with that kind of range, not a lot of people can do that. That skill set translates to the next level pretty well."
Sealy's view is a little different than Lowe's, even after all she has accomplished.
"I'm pretty surprised," Lowe said. "I didn't really see myself here. I still don't think too highly of myself. I'm not surprised I've gotten better, but at the same time, I'm pretty much on the back burner. I don't really think about my success. I just want to stay hungry."