Lauren Wilson didn’t make the volleyball team at Lake City Middle School in sixth grade.
She didn’t make it in seventh either. Even in eighth, she only played in one game all season.
But Wilson never quit.
“I just loved it,” Wilson said. “Even though I wasn’t good enough then, I just knew I could do it. The fact I was told I couldn’t do it made me want to do it so much more.”
The moral of this story? Never give up on your dreams.
Wilson’s hard work on and off the court during her four years at Columbia paid off Monday as she signed her national letter of intent to play volleyball at Huntingdon College, a Division III school in Montgomery, Ala. It’s a day Wilson has been looking forward to since her freshman year when she saw Columbia alum Madison Plyn sign with Erskine College.
Wilson is the first CHS volleyball player to sign with a four-year NCAA program since Plyn did following the 2016 season. She still remembers how special that day was for Plyn, and it was something she strived for from that day on.
“This means a lot,” said Wilson, who will play outside hitter for both the Hawks’ indoor team in the fall and the beach volleyball team in the spring. “I’ve been looking forward to it for four years now. I saw (Plyn) sign my freshman year and then it was just like, ‘I want to do that.’ It means a lot to have all my friends here, some of my teachers and my family.”
Huntingdon coach Latonia Brady first noticed Wilson when she attended the A5 Southern Volleyball Showcase in Atlanta in November of 2018. That event featured about 1,000 high school girls and a couple hundred college coaches from the Southeast and Midwest. At a showcase, volleyball athletes work out in front of the coaches at skills stations and in simulated game situations where their talent is evaluated.
Wilson says she received a few emails from college coaches after the showcase, including one from Brady. She was invited to a camp that March and met the entire coaching staff before being invited back to campus for a summer camp session.
From there, Wilson continued to build a strong relationship with Brady. After taking her official visit in October, which included watching the Hawks play three matches, she knew Huntingdon was the place to call home.
“When I visited Huntingdon, I knew I wanted to live there and be there,” Wilson said.
Getting here wasn’t easy for Wilson though, but despite barely playing in middle school, she was determined to get better at Columbia. Wilson was a regular at the team’s open gym in the summer before her freshman year, playing for hours to work on her skills and improve her knowledge of the game.
“But mostly, she got her brains beat out every day, day after day by the varsity players,” Wilson’s father, Todd, said. “But that made her tougher, stronger and she got better and she discovered that she loved the game even more.”
After spending her freshman season on the JV squad, starting every match at setter, she won the Tiger Award as the JV’s best player. A pair of sprained knees hampered her sophomore season. But again, Wilson didn’t quit.
She bounced back her junior year, making the varsity squad as the team’s middle blocker and was named the team’s Utility Player of the Year. She switched positions again to outside hitter as a senior, the position Brady was recruiting her to play.
Wilson wrapped up her career at Columbia by winning the team’s Offensive Player of the Year award this past fall, finishing second on the team with 134 kills. That was more than double the 55 she had in her junior year, playing mostly defense at middle blocker.
As a senior, she was named the Lake City Reporter’s Volleyball Player of the Year and was named a starter for the North squad of the North Florida All-Star Series Volleyball Classic. She also was named to the Gainesville Sun’s All-Area Volleyball Team.
“It’s hard finding athletes who love the game as much as Lauren does,” Columbia assistant coach Heather Benson said.
Wilson didn’t make it to Huntingdon by just simply putting in the work at Columbia. She also plays year round and has played for various clubs the past four years, including Vision Volleyball Club of Gainesville, Gainesville Beach Volleyball and Gainesville Juniors Volleyball Club. The clubs play tournaments in cities around Florida and the Southeast.
Currently, she plays for Gainesville Juniors 18 National team. Wilson says travel ball was integral in her improvement and getting her to where she is today. Playing for several different coaches and teams allowed her to learn and play each of the six positions on the court at different times, a versatility that also caught her college coach’s eye.
“My freshman year I was not the best at all. I was below average,” Wilson said. “And then I started playing club ball in Gainesville and I came back my 10th grade year and that’s when everybody said they saw something drastic change.”
Now Wilson is ready to make a new mark at Huntingdon. She says she’s excited to join her new teammates and play for Brady, who didn’t just feel like a coach during the recruiting process, but also a friend.
“She always made it feel like she wanted me there,” said Wilson, who plans to major in biology and minor in business while on a pre-med track. “She wanted my skills but it was more of like she liked me as a person and she made me feel like I could bring something to her program that also wasn’t volleyball related. And it’s a Christian school, so I love that. And I just felt like I fit in. I fit in with all the girls. We’re all friends now so it kind of worked out.”
Huntingdon College (23-15, 11-3 conf.) competes in the 19-team USA South Conference, West Division. The conference is made up of schools from Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. Wilson joins a veteran Hawks team that loses only three seniors from its 2019 indoor squad.