How Florida Volleyball Got Its One-Two Punch
When Alex Holston said yes to Florida over the 46 other schools that recruited her, Gators volleyball coach Mary Wise made her repeat the words.
"I wanted to make sure I heard them," Wise said.
What she didn't know at the time was that snagging the two-time Maryland Gatorade player of the year would turn into a two-for-one, bringing Florida another elite talent a year later.
What a payoff for the Gators, ranked fourth in the preseason American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. Florida opens the 2015-16 season playing its first seven matches on the road, starting this weekend with contests at James Madison and American, followed by two in Austin, Texas, where they'll meet No. 13 Oregon and the Longhorns, ranked third.
Holston comes into her junior year as an All-American and the reigning SEC player of the year. Her former Metro American club teammate, Rhamat Alhassan, led the nation in hitting efficiency (.458) last year and was named a second-team All-American as a freshman.
"They are pretty good pieces to start with," said Wise, who has coached the Gators to 21 SEC championships in her 25 years. "We return all our point scorers and a collection of upperclassmen playing the best volleyball of their careers."
And as good a recruiter as Wise is, the assist for landing Alhassan goes to Holston.
"I really don't know where I would be if Alex wasn't on the same club team as me," Alhassan said.
"I gave her the inside scoop on Florida; I'll take the credit," Holston said good-naturedly.
While Holston has played the sport at a serious level since she was 12, Alhassan at that age never pictured herself suiting up for a rec volleyball team, let alone a nationally ranked collegiate one.
"Before I got into it, never knew volleyball was a real sport," confessed the springy athlete from Glenarden, Maryland, who initially showcased her agility and leaping ability on the basketball court at a small Catholic girls school, the Academy of the Holy Cross. An above-the-rim center, whose YouTube video of her dunking tallied a couple thousand views, piqued the interest of basketball coaches from schools including Virginia, UCLA, USC and even Florida.
ESPN ranked the 6-foot-4 Alhassan among the top freshman prep prospects in the nation, but basketball suddenly lost its appeal during her sophomore year.
"I was burned out," Alhassan said. "I had been doing the same thing such a long time."
At her best friend's urging, she picked up volleyball and got talked into attending a clinic at Metro American, a Maryland club that has a history of developing the region's top talent.
"I'm a basketball player," Alhassan immediately informed Silvia Johnson, coach of the 18s travel team that is consistently among the best in the country.
"By the end of the season you're going to play volleyball," Johnson predicted, impressed with Alhassan from the jump.
"She worked hard, even when she didn't know what she was doing because at first, she had no skills," Johnson says today. "She has the personality to be an Olympian. You fuel that with athleticism, and it's over."
Intimidated early, Alhassan felt lost when Johnson surrounded her with elite players. She remembers watching Holston, awestruck.
"I was awful," Alhassan said, laughing at the memory. "I was 16, playing on an 18s team, and I had no business playing on that team. I sat in the corner and thought she was awesome. Even at 17, everything was going to her."
Assistant coach Dave Boos was the first on Florida's staff to get a glimpse of Alhassan, and he texted this early impression to Wise when he was asked how she looked: "Terrible."
But his next text read, "What would you expect?"
"She had never played before, but I knew it wouldn't take her long," Wise said. "She's one of the most driven athletes I've been around. She's so responsible and she's got an incredibly high top end because of both her athletic skill and character."
Under Johnson's direction, Alhassan transformed herself into an elite-level player. The blocking came naturally for Alhassan, an imposing middle blocker. Serving and technique took longer.
Invited to Colorado Springs to try out for the U.S. youth national team as a junior, Alhassan survived until the final cut despite being in a pool with players far more experienced than she.
"I like challenges," she said. "I went back home and tried to better myself."
The next year, she carried that same team to gold, winning MVP.
When it came to picking a college, Alhassan admits Holston played a huge role in her decision.
"I don't even know if Florida would have seen me if it weren't for Alex," she said.
The pair developed a chemistry playing on Johnson's elite team despite their different styles. Holston complements Alhassan's athleticism with finesse and a volleyball IQ that Wise said is off the charts.
"Early on, we saw Alex as a player who didn't have a great deal of strength, but had a great arm and with her foot speed and jumping ability, she had special skills," Wise said. "What we didn't know was how great a learner she would be."
The right-side hitter who led Sherwood High School in Olney, Maryland, to three consecutive 4A state titles started 18 of the Gators' 32 matches as a freshman, when she was named honorable mention All-American. Like Alhassan, Holston played basketball first but gave it up in seventh grade.
"I didn't make my middle school team so they made me the manager," she said. "That was pretty embarrassing."
Holston turned to volleyball, following the path of her cousin Darian Dozier, now at South Carolina and one of the top middle blockers in the SEC.
"I loved volleyball right away," said Holston, who almost immediately received recruiting attention. Though LSU was a close second, she chose Florida, not just for the volleyball but also for the academic side. Majoring in event management, she hopes to plan weddings.
She and Alhassan, a digital arts and sciences major, are mature beyond their years. Both lost parents young. Holston's mother, Andi, died of breast cancer seven years ago, traveling shortly beforehand to watch Alex play in Texas despite the effects of chemotherapy.
"I think of my mom every single day, four or five times," Holston said. "During the national anthem before games, I count the stars on the flag and then say a little prayer to her."
Alhassan lost her father, Abdul, to a stomach ulcer when she was 12. She was left to her own devices to make her way to club practice, often relying on the subway.
"The best word I can use to describe Rhamat is self-sufficient," said Wise, who marvels at the sophomore's ability to take care of her own needs, whether that be submitting the required NCAA paperwork prior to deadlines or knitting her own scarves.
"I've taught half the team how to knit," said Alhassan, noting her independence stems from helping out her mother and younger sister after the loss of her dad.
"I wanted to make life easier for my mom."
In practice, the pair will bond over representing the "DMV" -- the region comprising the District of Columbia and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Both share inside-the-Beltway humor in addition to missing Wegmans, the regional supermarket chain that resembles a European open-air market. They regularly swap stories from what they call MoCo -- Montgomery County, Maryland, where both went to high school. Often it's at Krispy Kreme over their favorite doughnut.
"Original glazed," Holston said.
"They're the best warm," Alhassan agreed.
Last fall both were disappointed when Florida lost to top-seeded Stanford in the regional final after a 28-4 season that included running the table in the SEC.
They return this fall with improved games. The pair spent much of their summer competing internationally. Holston spent two weeks in July on the 12-player U.S. collegiate national team -- coached by Wise -- in the World University Games in South Korea. Alhassan and Gators teammate Carli Snyder were part of the junior national team that competed in Croatia, Italy and Slovenia.
"I definitely think it will help come tournament time," Alhassan said. "With the tournament you don't have as much time to scout, so you need to adjust on the fly."