As recently as two years ago, Grace Young wasn’t sure if she was a Division I college caliber volleyball player.
And even if she was, she sure didn’t think being as a defensive specialist on a successful high school team would be her ticket to the next level.
Young thought her future was as a setter on offense, feeding the ball to Cedar Ridge’s big outside hitters Cameron Lloyd and Cameron Lanier, who would slam home point after point almost as will against hapless opponents. That what her role with the Chapel Hill Area Volleyball Club, her summer travel team under coach Tatiana Jackson, a former UNC volleyball player from 2013-2016.
During winter afternoons, Young would show up to the CHAVC gym for workouts. Afterwards, Grace would go home with her father Jeff, where they would place pipes on the ground for setting training.
Those lessons counted for something, but she didn’t accept an offer to play at UNC Asheville as a setter. Instead, her contribution has been defensively for the Red Wolves as a libero, playing in the backcourt as her longtime friend Julie Altieri sets up the Red Wolves’ outside hitters near the net.
“Before last year, I didn’t think I would be playing Division one,” Young said. “It’s crazy to think about now I’m going to Asheville as a DS (defensive specialist). It’s been a journey, for sure.”
Young’s position adjustment has worked out best for everyone. She has a team-high 227 digs for a Cedar Ridge team that has won the 2021 Central Carolina regular season and tournament championships. Under head coach Fiona Cunningham, the Red Wolves have broken the single-season school record with 27 wins as they prepare to face Harnett Central in the 3rd round of the 3A State Playoffs tonight at Cedar Ridge High School.
Young made her decision to attend UNC Asheville after spending the weekend of October 8-9 entrenched inside the UNCA program. That included watching the Bulldogs game against Winthrop from the Justice Center. During pregame, she was invited to watch film of Winthrop with the team in a large conference room. Afterwards, she took a tour of campus.
“I really was leaning towards Asheville,” Young said. “I always had my eyes on Asheville. I went to their camp last summer and fell in love with it. I love the coaches. They’re so sweet. It’s just like a big family environment at UNC Asheville.”
It didn’t hurt that Young’s mother, Brenda, has parents in Asheville and she makes frequent trips to visit that side of the family.
Like many successful athletic careers, Grace Young’s foray into volleyball started with a community.
In this case, it was in White Cross. She started playing volleyball when she was 8, paired against girls named Cameron Lloyd, Julie Altieri and Anaya Carter. There would be Friday night games, where there was as much competition as fun. Afterwards, they’d all sit around to eat hot dogs from the concession stand, located no more than 50 feet from the volleyball’s court baseline.
It’s still a White Cross tradition, and Young often visits on Friday nights.
Years later, those players who enjoyed hot dogs together would band together as a unified front for Cedar Ridge. Since Young joined the varsity as a libero last year, the Red Wolves are 36-3, 20-0 in conference games with two conference championships and three state playoff wins. And counting.
“I give them all of the credit,” Young said of her teammates. “I couldn’t have gotten anywhere without them, honestly. Them and the coaches that led me along the way.”
When things aren’t going good in some games, Young will wear her emotions on her burgundy sleeve. That’s when Cameron Lloyd will walk up to her and say “Grace, turn on that switch.”
“Just those little words will fire me up,” Young said. “Ava Lowry is always good to make a joke. Anaya and I will sit on the bench sometimes and we’ll play a game where we slap each other with a towel or something whenever we score a point. They always keep me smiling.”
If you look at Cedar Ridge’s bench during some noncompetitive games, Cunningham will lead her players to various celebrations after points. After an ace, for instance, all the reserves with twirl with their arms over their heads like a ballerina.
In her formative years playing in White Cross, Young was coached by former Cedar Ridge player Tory McNeil, who played on a Red Wolves squad that went to the fourth round of the 2013 3A State Playoffs.
“Tory was so energetic and really taught Grace that volleyball was meant to be fun,” said Jeff Young.
Grace attended volleyball camps at Cedar Ridge when Charlie Oakley was the head coach. Oakley led Cedar Ridge to three conference championships, including consecutive titles in the Carolina 9 Conference in 2010 and 2011. The 2009 team finished 26-5, setting a school record for most wins in a season that stood for 12 years until this year’s squad broke it on Tuesday night with its win over South Johnston in the second round of the state playoffs.
After playing at Gravelly Hill Middle School, Young joined many of the players that she once played against in White Cross at Cedar Ridge in 2019. Young played junior varsity her freshman year, while Lloyd, Altieri and Carter played varsity. Together, they took a Red Wolves team that went 23-42 in the previous three years and sparked an instant revival of the program. In their freshman year, with Young still at JV, Cedar Ridge went 18-6 and upset defending 3A State Champions Chapel Hill in their first Big 8 Conference game.
It was the time away from Cedar Ridge that shaped Young’s work ethic. In the winter, there would be travel tournaments with CHAVC in Texas, Florida, and Missouri, to name just a few of the states. A standard weekend would have 9-10 games with best-of-three sets, usually three games per day. It left Young utterly exhausted by the time Monday rolled around. With her body sore, she constantly fought the urge to stay in bed and skip Monday workouts with Bittikofer, but she always went anyway.
“I was raised in a family that was taught to work hard,” Young said. “After long tournaments, I would have lessons for defense and serve receives on Mondays. I did not want to go to it. But my Dad would give me a call and say ‘It’s your decision on what I want to do, but it would be good if you went.’ I knew it would work out in the long run if I just put in the work. That mindset really helped me.”
Young started playing beach volleyball in 2019. Sherry Lloyd, Cameron’s mother, would drive Young, Altieri, Carter and others to Bittikofer’s and Linda Lang’s gym. During the pandemic, Young’s CHAVC team practiced four times a week, three hours a day for 2-on-2 games. Originally, Young’s beach volleyball (or sand, for short) partner was Carter. But when Young joined a team called Blue Sky, she teamed with Melissa Benkowitz, then of East Chapel Hill High. Benkowitz transferred to Cedar Ridge over the summer.
Young’s immediate future is unclear. Right now, she and her teammates are riding a #1 seed and hope to reach the state quarterfinals tonight. Of course, the team’s ultimate goal is to play for the 3A State Championship at the famed Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh a week from this Saturday.
But her long term future is set. It will be in Asheville, and her setting days are over.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I will definitely be a defensive specialist in Asheville,” Young said.