With UCLA libero Taylor Formico, consider it dug

Taylor Formico's hustle has impressed even Kerri Walsh Jennings. The UCLA senior could get her 2,000th dig Wednesday vs. USC. Courtesy UCLA

Taylor Formico was determined to beat her three brothers, two older and one younger, in any sport growing up.

She threw fastball after fastball in her backyard batting cage trying to match their speed. She went toe-to toe with them in weekly soccer games and sprinting races. She even tried to bounce the highest on the family's trampoline, competing for the best backflips and front flips.

When she was 5, she watched her brothers climb a 10-foot tetherball post in the backyard. Formico huffed and puffed, falling short each time. But she kept climbing.

"I stayed up all night until 3 a.m., until I climbed to the top," Formico said. "I screamed for my mom in the middle of the night. She was angry I was out there, but I had to have proof."

Formico, now a 5-foot-7 senior libero for No. 9 UCLA (9-1 overall), doesn't know any other gear than overdrive. She's usually the one screaming, high-fiving and jumping up and down for her teammates or flying around the volleyball court for an epic dig.

"She is the absolute heart of our team," senior outside hitter Jordan Anderson said.

Just ask Formico's cousin, three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings: "She's just relentless," Walsh Jennings said. "She'll run through fire or a brick wall to get a ball up for her team."

Not even a torn labrum in her hip could keep Formico, the 2015 Pac-12 Libero of the Year and an American Volleyball Coaches Association third-team All-America selection, off the court.

Playing hurt for the past three seasons, she didn't miss a game, a weight-lifting session, a conditioning session or a team meeting -- even when she had to Uber to campus because it was too painful to walk, even when she had to punch her hip in practice to push through a practice drill, even when her leg went numb during games.

Formico, whose 554 digs (sixth most in Bruins history) led UCLA to the Sweet 16 last season, kept the injury a secret. She didn't want anyone to feel sorry for her.

"For her, it wasn't even an issue. It wasn't even worth talking about," UCLA coach Michael Sealy said. "For her it was, 'Don't even show me compassion with this thing. This is just the way it is, and we're going.'"

It's always been that way for Formico.

Inspired by Walsh Jennings, Formico dreamed of playing at the highest levels of the game. But few colleges recruited the Saratoga, California, native, partially because of her size, Formico said, and because she'd have to transition from her natural position at setter to libero, and she didn't have any experience playing the latter.

"Her whole career, because of her size, she's had to struggle to get people to recognize how good she really was. It drove her," said her father, Mike. "She's constantly proving herself, even today."

Former UC Santa Barbara coach Kathy Gregory offered her a spot. Formico accepted before looking at any other schools.

"[Gregory] helped me embrace my passion," Formico said. "Sometimes it's like, 'You're too crazy,' or, 'You're too fiery,' but she really embraced and loved my passion and my fight. She's all about heart."

"She'll run through fire or a brick wall to get a ball up for her team." Kerri Walsh Jennings

Formico made a seamless transition to libero for the Gauchos in 2012, leading the nation with 792 digs (5.87 per set) en route to AVCA West Region Freshman of the Year honors.

"She pulled it off because she trained harder than anyone," Gregory said. "Practice would be over and she'd still want more reps. She came in on weekends. If she could train 10 hours a day, she would."

Gregory ended her 38-year tenure at UCSB after Formico's rookie season. Formico was devastated -- Gregory was the one who believed in her, who took a chance on her.

Formico wasn't sure if she wanted to keep playing.

The more she thought about it, the more she realized she wanted to challenge herself and play at a higher level. Transferring to UCLA would fill that craving; she had always dreamed of playing in the Pac-12.

But she was nervous, even intimidated, during her first few practices at UCLA in 2014. She was surrounded by women who were former top-10, blue-chip recruits, women who had been recruited straight out of high school. Formico knew her path was different, and she knew she could play -- but did she belong there?

She battled the incumbent libero, Karly Drolson, for the starting spot. The first one to arrive to practice and the last to leave, Formico eventually earned the starting nod.

"She wanted to prove to everyone and even herself that she could play at this level," Drolson said. "That girl will never give up. She just worked her butt off."

Formico flourished, leading the Bruins in digs per set (3.90) and ranking third in aces (16), posting double-figure digs in 27 matches in 2014.

Upping her game even more the next season, when she was recognized as the Pac-12's best libero in 2015, Formico became the 23rd Bruin to reach 1,000 career digs. She posted a career-high 35 digs against Arizona.

"Her ability to keep the ball in play and keep it up, to take so much passing and defensive responsibility, coaches in the Pac-12, they have a game plan for her," Sealy said. "They don't do that too often with back-row players.

"She not only makes the steady, consistent play, but she makes the 'wow' plays, too," Sealy said. "Someone will make an amazing hit and she comes flying in to dig, and it really sucks the life out of the sail of the other team."

Formico is off to a fast start for the Bruins, who have suffered just one loss this season, against San Diego. Posting double-figure digs in each of the team's 10 matches, Formico notched a season-high 28 digs against Pepperdine on Sept. 13.

Formico enters Wednesday's match against crosstown rival USC, ranked 21st, with 1,193 digs as a Bruin, which is now ninth all time. She is 21 away from eighth.

Formico now has amassed 1,985 digs for her career, including her time at UCSB, and likely will pass surpass 2,000 against the Trojans.

But if you ask Formico, she'll probably tell you she has much more to work on to elevate her game. She pulls up game film on her cell phone almost immediately after games are over, dissecting each set, each play and each mistake she made with a focus that is almost obsessive.

"She was somebody that wasn't even on most people's radars," Gregory said. "It's not always the superstars that make it. It's someone that wanted it more than someone else, and had something to prove."