This story appeared in the New Jersey edition of the October ESPN RISE Magazine.
How did Ariel Scott do it? How did the Immaculate Heart Academy (Washington Township, N.J.) senior go from not being able to hit a volleyball over the net as a freshman to being called one of the best players in state history as a junior?
"If you love volleyball, you're willing to do anything to get better," she says. "Even when I wasn't good, I still loved it."
If love were all it took, everyone who played volleyball could be as good as Scott. They could have the top college coaches in the nation scouting their practices. They could train with the U.S. Women's Junior National Team. They could play for the top club volleyball team in New Jersey.
So no, love didn't make Scott the best. Or did it?
Scott ascended to the top of the New Jersey volleyball world in just three years. The 6-foot-4 center hitter led IHA to its second consecutive Tournament of Champions title as a junior and was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year and The Star-Ledger Player of the Year. The Star-Ledger said she has the potential to be the best player in state history, comparing her to Lauren Cacciamani of Paramus, who was co-winner of the NCAA Player of the Year Award when she led Penn State to a national championship in 1999.
But before Scott accepts any comparison, she still has one thing left on her agenda: improve even more.
"I think I have the potential to be a lot better than I am now," she says. "I think I can get better in every part of my game."
That must be a scary thought for her opponents considering how good Scott was as a junior. She recorded 366 kills with a .500 kill percentage and also added 107 digs, 52 blocks and 50 aces, proving how well-rounded her game has become.
"I'm very excited to see what she's going to do this year because every year she has progressed dramatically," says IHA co-head coach Mike DeCastro. "Every year she comes back and can do more."
As a freshman, Scott could barely do anything. She played volleyball only sparingly in eighth grade, wasn't serious about the game, didn't learn anything and arrived at IHA as a freshman more interested in basketball than volleyball. At her first volleyball practice, Scott served the ball into the net more often than over it, whiffed on spike attempts and had no idea how to rotate on the floor with her teammates.
"I was lucky if I hit the ball over the net," says Scott. "It was really frustrating."
So frustrating, her coach didn't know if she was going to continue playing after the first week.
"When she started, we weren't sure if she liked it or not," says IHA co-head coach Maria Nolan. "She didn't really smile or show any signs that she was enjoying it. We were hoping she liked it, of course."
Scott did like it despite the frustration she felt playing volleyball. She loved jumping up and spiking the ball or blocking an attempted spike against her. She loved the team aspect of the game and the instant gratification of winning a point. She also loved the improvement she experienced every day.
Blessed with the perfect combination of height and athleticism, Scott started with two traits that can't be taught. She also has great hand-eye coordination and an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time on the court. Then there's her ability to leap high in the air and slam the volleyball to the court below. She's every coach's dream and every opponent's nightmare.
"In the first year, you just knew that there was something special there," says DeCastro. "She just had that volleyball look."
While Scott had the look, she didn't have the skills. During practice, Scott, who started on varsity as a freshman but didn't play the entire match and was used primarily as a blocker, would practice serving, diving on the ground for digs and slamming down kills. There were bumps and bruises from missteps, but her improvement was steady. By the end of her freshman year, Scott was one of the best frontline players at IHA.
Three years later, she's the best all-around player in New Jersey.
Scott spends nearly every day of her summers going to volleyball camps or playing with her club team, TCA New Jersey. During the summer after her sophomore year she got to practice with the Junior National Team. (She was invited back this past summer but opted for camps and club play.)
"It's tiring, but you have to work through it because you know it's for the best," Scott says of her summers. "I see college players and Olympians and I know how much better they are than me and that motivates me to work harder."
Scott hopes to be an Olympian someday and has even considered the possibility of playing professionally overseas. But before any of that, she is focused on college.
After a year spent being wooed by some of the best colleges in the nation -- including Texas, Purdue and Kentucky -- Scott settled on two-time defending national champion Penn State, giving the Nittany Lions a verbal commitment.
"It's fun looking back and seeing how much I've improved," says Scott. "I never imagined being able to go to Penn State or be on the National Team when I was struggling."
No one could have. Scott's competitiveness drove her from the beginning. Her natural ability, height and athleticism helped her become one of the most talented players on the court.
But it took love to make her the best.
Brian A. Giuffra writes about high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.