Sassy? Shaw's internal fire burns bright

This story appeared in the Austin/San Antonio edition of the October ESPN RISE Magazine.

Sara Shaw was a sophomore on the Westlake (Austin, Texas) girls' volleyball team when teammate Cammy Kleinert decided Shaw needed a nickname. Kleinert started off simple, referring to her by her initials -- S.S. But after a while, Kleinert decided Shaw needed something a little more creative.

This time she went with Sassy. The name stuck.

"Maybe I have a touch of sass in me, I don't know," says Shaw, laughing.

Now a senior, Shaw brings great confidence to the court. She doesn't turn her swagger on with in-your-face celebrations or boisterous displays, but it comes through loud and clear as she calmly steps up whenever her team needs her.

Her ability to thrive in pressure-packed moments is part of why the 6-foot-2 outside hitter is one of the nation's top recruits and has committed to USC, which has won two NCAA titles and advanced to four Final Fours since 2002 under legendary head coach Mick Haley.

"There is a little fire that burns inside of me when it gets intense," says Shaw. "Pressure situations are my favorite. I really like the feeling knowing when the ball is coming to me. I want to show everybody what I got."

Shaw showed her ability to thrive under pressure from the moment she entered Westlake. She became only the second freshman to start for head coach Al Bennett, who had last given a starting nod to a frosh in 1998 (former USC and SMU setter Jessica Mihm).

Bennett knew about Shaw when she was in middle school because she had attended Westlake's camps. Sure, Shaw was only a freshman, but Bennett felt she was far too talented to sit on the bench. So he put her into the starting lineup at middle blocker during the Duncanville Tournament of Champions.

"We knew what she was capable of," says Bennett, who's in his 22nd year at the helm.

Shaw finished the tournament with 11 kills as Westlake took second. She remained in the starting lineup throughout the season and finished the year with 109 kills, 51 blocks (good for second on the team), 12 aces, a .519 kill percentage and a .338 hitting percentage. The Chaps went 38-5 and lost to San Antonio Reagan in the Class 5A regional finals.

Shaw admits there was a little apprehension in the beginning, but she says upperclassmen like then-juniors Lauren Van Ert and Kara Waggoner eased the tension by helping her get to know all her teammates. By the end of the season, Shaw had become confident that she not only belonged at but could dominate on the varsity level.

She carried that confidence over to her sophomore campaign and turned in a spectacular season. Shaw picked up All-State honors after she tallied 293 kills and led the team in kill percentage (.626), hitting percentage (.541), aces (86) and blocks (55). She was also the only sophomore selected to the all-tournament team after she keyed Westlake's run to the state finals, where the Chaps fell to Amarillo in three games.

She continued her fine play during the summer heading into her junior year by guiding her Austin Juniors Volleyball 17 Mizuno team to a Junior Olympic title. Shaw was the only Class of 2010 player on the squad, but it didn't seem to matter.

"She's got a lot of game and she rises to the challenge," says Glen Lietzke, director of Austin Juniors Volleyball and Shaw's club coach.

Shaw made the switch from middle blocker to outside hitter last year for Westlake. Bennett used Shaw in the middle her first two seasons since he was set on the outside and wanted to get her on the court somehow. The transition to the outside was easy because it was a position she'd played in club and because she's so versatile.

"She's a complete player," says Bennett. "She can serve, dig, pass the ball and defend. She's not a liability anywhere on the court. What makes her special is her ability to do all that and have a lot of size. You don't see a lot of big kids be able to do that."

Shaw embraced the switch because it meant she had more of a say in the outcome of matches, especially during crucial moments.

"Outside, there's more of a flow to the game," she says. "You're almost in every play, which is what I wanted."

She tallied a school-record 698 kills as a junior and added 550 digs, 83 aces, 65 blocks, a .468 kill percentage and a .363 hitting percentage. She was a PrepVolleyball.com All-American and was selected to the All-State and All-Tournament teams for the second straight year. Shaw led all players at state with 54 kills and also contributed 36 digs, five blocks and four aces as Westlake again fell to Amarillo in the state finals, this time in five games.

"She was clearly the best player in the state tournament," Bennett says. "We just came up short."

Shaw prepped for this year by playing on the U.S. Women's Junior National Team that finished 12th at the 2009 FIVB World Championships in Tijuana. In two U.S. victories, she had 18 points, including a team-high 12 (nine kills, two blocks and an ace) in a win over Venezuela.

She was slowed early this season by a left ankle injury sustained at the World Championships but was confident she'd bounce back in time for the heart of Westlake's schedule and lead the Chaps on another run at state.

You didn't expect Sassy to go out quietly, did you?

Jon Mahoney writes about high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.