Anna Mae Messisco's Story!
MOUNT ULLA — Anna Messisco didn’t get rattled on her big day, not even with a few hundred people crowding around her in the West Rowan media center.
Messisco was brightly attired in green and gold, sporting the colors of her future school UAB — the University of Alabama at Birmingham — and she smiled for a dozen cameras as she put her pen to the official signing papers.
While it was newsworthy locally that Messisco was signing a Division I scholarship, it’s actually statewide news because of the sport for which she signed. She’s believed to be the first from North Carolina to sign an athletic scholarship to play an emerging college women’s sport — sand volleyball.
Messisco’s mother, Leslie, and sister, Emily, modeled green UAB Sand Volleyball T-shirts. Messisco’s father, Brian, passed on the T-shirt but he was equally supportive.
There were plenty of sand volleyball shirts visible in the room, displayed by a variety of interested coaches from a variety of organizations.
Some people for whom volleyball is as big a part of life as eating and breathing gushed about how important Messisco’s signing was.
“This is groundbreaking,” said Glenn Cashion. director of N.C. Sand in Greensboro. “It’s going to open a lot of doors for a lot of girls. We had 19 girls playing five years ago and now we’ve got 120. This is a fast-growing sport.”
Cashion has coached indoor volleyball at Greensboro Page and Grimsley high schools and at Guilford, and he believes Messisco is something special as a player and person as well as a pioneer in the sand.
Messisco came of out nowhere for most people last fall when she started playing indoor volleyball for West Rowan. Tall at 5-foot-10, quick, springy and bursting with energy, she was obviously the Falcons’ most talented player.
Most of us have never seen her play sand volleyball, but from all accounts, she’s pretty amazing.
“She’s a fine athlete,” said Sherri Holm, who coached Messisco’s homeschool basketball team. “But she’s also got the intangibles that make a good player a great player. She has this amazing spirit that lifts her teammates.”
“Sweet as honey, but tough as nails,” is Messisco’s favorite description that she’s heard about herself.
Messisco was homeschooled until the fall of 2013. She began playing volleyball with her older sister in standard indoor competition when she was in the sixth grade.
Messisco’s sand saga didn’t start until 2011 when the Messiscos saw an email about a Triad sand volleyball tournament that was seeking two-girl teams.
“My sister and I decided to sign up,” Messisco said. “We didn’t know the rules were so different from indoors, and I was messing up left and right. But at Christmas break that year, we went to a sand volleyball camp down in Florida. That’s when I started to understand it and love it. Then we started playing a lot of tournaments.”
Messisco explained that the sand game is only a first cousin to the game that Rowan high school girls play in basketball gyms with six on each side.
For one thing, two people have a lot of territory to cover on the sand. For another, rules on hitting and setting are much more restrictive. Top-notch sand volleyball players don’t even use their hands to set — they bump-set with their arms. For another thing, the elements come into play outdoors.
“Besides playing in sand, you’re dealing with the wind, the glare of the sun and usually the heat,” Messisco explained. “Those are all big factors,”
And since the college season starts in March, there will be times when Messisco is dealing with the cold, and it’s not like sand volleyball players are wearing parkas and ear muffs.
While opting for college in Birmingham wasn’t an easy decision for Messisco, it probably wasn’t as tough as the decision to attend public school for the first time as a senior.
“You worry that you thought you were smart but maybe you’re going to find out you’re stupid,” Messisco said with a laugh. “And you see people being bullied in high school on TV. I was wondering if someone was going to push me into a locker or something. That first day I was sort of terrified. Just going to the cafeteria and seeing all those people was scary.”
Her volleyball ability eased her transition. Her new teammates discovered she was quick to praise and slow to criticize. West wasn’t strong and struggled in SPC games, but Messisco didn’t get frustrated.
“I had a blast,” she said. “I loved every minute of being part of that team. My teammates thought I was crazy because I’d get excited just riding on the bus to the away games, but I’d never done anything like that before.”
West principal Jamie Durant said Messisco added to the school.
“The traditonal high school students takes a lot for granted,” he said. “But for Anna, it was all new, and she took it all in. My lasting memory will be our first football pep rally of the season. I remember seeing her, and she was having the best time and had the biggest smile of anyone.”
After representing West on the all-county volleyball team, Messisco was looking forward to impacting the Falcons’ basketball program, but she blew out a knee the first day of tryouts.
“I tried to play in the scrimmages, but I’d torn everything,” Messisco said.
The ACL, MCL and meniscus often are torn as a package deal, and that was the case with Messisco.
“I was distraught at first because I was thinking my chance for a volleyball scholarship was gone,” she said. “Fortunately, the doctors did an amazing job.”
She found out she still had offers, some for indoor volleyball but also several for sand volleyball. Coaches had seen her play in tournaments.
Sand volleyball has caught on at colleges in the south and west, and more than 40 schools are playing now. Usually, a match is determined by five 2-on-2 contests. In Arizona, sand volleyball has become an official prep sport, although none of the other states have joined in yet.
Messisco said UAB’s offer wasn’t the biggest in terms of dollars, but UAB was the place that impressed her the most when she visited.
“UAB told me my knee was a risk, but the reward outweighed the risk,” Messisco said. “Recruiting was an emotional roller coaster, but as soon as I got to UAB, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. The coaches were super-cool.”
It was a factor for Messisco that sand volleyball is played in the spring, while indoor volleyball is played in the fall. She’ll be 100 percent by spring, even after two meniscus surgeries, but she may not have been ready to play as a freshman this fall.
Plus, sand figures to be a lot easier on her knees than hardwood in the years to come.
“This is a great day,” Cashion said. “There aren’t a lot of college sand volleyball players, much less sand volleyball players on scholarship. And you’ve got one of them right here at West Rowan.”
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