Chloe Collins is learning the ropes
AUSTIN, Texas -- Long before he was coach of the University of Texas volleyball team that won a national championship a season ago, Jerritt Elliott was an elementary school teacher.
There are times when freshmen must make it feel as if he never changed careers.
A couple of hours into a lengthy late September practice the day before an important match against Nebraska, Elliott called over Chloe Collins and outlined a particular play he wanted the freshman setter to execute. She listened, returned to the court and promptly did something else entirely when it came time for her to set the ball. A clearly bemused Elliott sought an explanation, but carried on with practice when she couldn't come up with one.
Only later, as the coach spoke to the team before dismissing practice, did he revisit the incident and again ask why she hadn't run the play as requested. Misinterpreting the moment, she tried to make a joke out it. She suggested she had experienced a blonde flash. Elliott's frustrated expression didn't change and an awkward air settled over the proceedings.
Part of a setter's job is to read the court. In this instance, Collins failed to read her surroundings.
"I'm trying; I am," Collins said as she recalled the moment a few weeks later. "I'm learning. I'm still getting used to Jerritt's personality, too. But that was one of my dumb moments where I just didn't really think it through, which I do a lot -- where my mind just stops."
She meant the forgotten play, but it seemed equally applicable to the attempt at banter with a peeved coach.
Welcome to freshman year. Collins possesses the kind of talent opponents will spend the next three years trying to figure out how to stop. For now, she's doing her best to figure out college.
"We recruit kids for the way that they are," Longhorns associate head coach Salima Rockwell said. "It's a big part of how we recruit. And we want them to be them. We're just going to help them be a better version of them."
At 5-foot-7, Collins is one of the smallest people in the gym when the Longhorns get together, but her personality more than makes up for any deficit in inches. Even amidst the giants around her, she still stands out.
Media guides for college teams often include a "get to know" section that accompanies each player's biography, with a range of questions on likes, dislikes and other personal trivia. One of the more common questions asks the athletes to pick three people, living or deceased, with whom they'd like to have dinner. No matter the school, no matter the sport, the same names pop up again and again. Henry VIII and Alexander the Great, on the other hand, do not often make appearances, but both are on Collins' invite list.
"Just how he was such a conqueror," Collins said of Alexander, the Macedonian monarch from antiquity. "I found that really empowering because as an athlete, I can relate that to myself, just going out there and battling on the court."
The crickets that greeted her attempt at levity in that September practice notwithstanding, she is quick-witted. Every other sentence seems to end with her laughing over the final words, the joke often at her own expense. She is vibrant. She has personality. Spend time talking to her and you get why a program would want her around if she can also play a little.
And as a former prep All-American, she can play more than a little.
Collins is an example of what the program is now. A regular contender in recent seasons and now established as a championship program, it has the luxury of selectivity.
"We're at a point now where we can recruit physical talent but also personalities," Elliott said.
Both of which have to adjust to the college setting. Collins graduated early from high school in Cypress, Texas, so she could enroll in Austin this past spring. As her high school friends went through their familiar routines for a final time back home, she spent her first day of college with Rockwell as her guide, lest the new arrival lose her way.
"I can honestly say my personality did not show when I first got here in the spring," Collins said. "I was with a new group of girls, new environment, new school and everything. And it really just took some adjusting to, just being myself and knowing I could be myself around those girls, that they're like my sisters now.''
The reticence caught her by surprise. She had been around most of the players at some point during the recruiting process, knew some of them from the high school and club volleyball circuit in Texas. It was somehow just different in Austin with a team then just a couple of months removed from winning the national championship match she watched from the stands.
"I thought I was going to be pretty cool and down to earth with them," Collins said. "But, nah, I wasn't."
At one point, after about two months on campus, she called her mom in tears. She needed to come home for a weekend, she said. Just to recharge. Perhaps also to be where being herself came naturally.
But what is new eventually becomes familiar. She settled in, savored her first South by Southwest festival as an Austin resident with her brother. She grew comfortable on the court. The coaches noticed a spark in her when the team traveled to Europe in late May. She bounced around more on the court, slapped more high-fives, acted more like the player they recruited. She played more like that player, too.
"I tend to play better when I just let things flow," Collins said. "I'm a goofy person, and when I'm being goofy, that's good. That means something is going right. But when I'm quiet, that's when you know I'm in my own head, thinking about something that is probably totally irrelevant to what's going on at that moment."
She played a lot early in the season, more than she said she expected, but the time on the court has been sporadic. She leads the team's freshmen with nine starts, but for just about the first time in her life, she has also spent entire matches watching from the bench. That is how it goes for a freshman on a team that returned as much talent as Texas.
It's a learning process, on and off the court. Be yourself. Just make sure you listen when the coach calls a play.
"She's a kid. She's just a little knucklehead who likes playing volleyball," Rockwell said. "But she's also smart enough to understand when you look at her and say, 'This is a big deal. This is going to cost us a point in a national championship match.'"
She is also the kind of kid who at some point in her time in Austin may help a team get to a national championship match. People with talent and personality to match are like that.