By Meredith Foster Ristic
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Rachel Wells, a senior volleyball player at UNC Asheville, will end her career on a high note as she attends the open U.S. Olympic tryouts in February.
"If someone would have told me as a freshman that I would be in this position today, I would have never believed them," Wells said.
Wells finished her senior season in 2013 leading the nation in digs per set at 6.38.
"When Coach Santos (Frederico Santos, head coach) first told me where I was ranked early in the season, I was expecting to hear a three-digit number," Wells said. "When he told me I was ninth, I couldn't believe it."
Wells had 746 digs for the season, the second-most in school history. She also posted the most digs for a single match in 2013 with 54 against Radford. Despite losing the match in four sets, Wells averaged an unheard-of 13.5 digs per set.
"Our match against Radford was a really emotional night for us because it was senior night, and our last game in the Justice Center," she said. "We all wanted to win for our fans and for each other, so we were motivated to do everything that we could to win"
Wells, a native of Statesville, N.C., walked on to the UNC Asheville volleyball team in the fall of 2010 because she wasn't ready for her to career to be over yet. When she walked off the court after her last collegiate match, she had similar feelings.
"We finished our season right before Thanksgiving break, and as soon as we got back I was ready to play again," Wells said. "After talking with Coach (Frederico) Santos, I decided that going to the tryouts was what I wanted to do."
"If going to the tryouts is a dream of hers, and the opportunity presents itself, I don't see why she shouldn't go," Santos said. "I told her that I would help her prepare, but ultimately the choice was hers.
"The main thing is I told her to be herself, and believe in what she has. I didn't want her to make a big change to try to be like the other players she might come across."
Rachel's strength is that she doesn't have a fear of going to the floor, Santos said.
"In her junior and senior years, it became instinctual for her to go to the floor on defense," stated Santos. "She became concerned with pursuing the ball, and instinctually I think that's her greatest asset."
That kind of heart and determination will be what makes her stand out much more than any kind of technique, Santos said.
"We're doing a lot of the same things we did in season to prepare for the tryouts," Omar Ahmad, head strength and conditioning coach, said.
"We really just want to maintain what we worked up to in season in order to set her up to continue to play at a high level," he added.
"My hope for her is to get rid of any nagging injuries that may have come during season, and just to have her feeling capable and really fresh for that weekend."
The tryouts will be held at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., which has an elevation of 6,035 feet, 4,000 above Asheville.
"One thing I'm trying to do a little differently is a little more cardio than usual to make up for the difference in elevation," Wells said.
"A lot of her cardio is coming from her practices, which are one-on-one, and I think they're a little more ramped up than usual," Ahmad said.
"In addition to the workouts, we've been watching film to find other ways to make improvements," Wells said.
Wells will leave for the tryouts on Feb. 21 and stay on campus at the Olympic Training Center until Feb. 23.
"I'm not really nervous about it anymore. I'm looking at it more as just another weekend that I get to play," Wells said. "I don't have any expectations. I'm excited to go for the experience and to meet a lot of new people."
Wells' coaches and teammates are proud of her for taking advantage of the opportunity.
"I think it's awesome that UNC Asheville is getting national recognition for things that their athletes are doing," Ahmad said. "She has an opportunity to be successful, and she is pursuing it."