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September 15, 2010

Right Place at the Right Time - Felicia Willoughby has bounced around the world over the years, but her stay in Blacksburg has resulted in a banner volleyball career

By: Matt Kovatch

Felicia Willoughby

Think of yourself as an up-and-coming volleyball star, one who had spent eight years living in the frigid temperatures of Alaska before landing in sun-splashed California for your high school days. Knocking on your door are universities – many in the volleyball hotbed of your home state – offering you a chance to continue your career at their school. Would you spurn those chances to move across the country and play for a team in the windy mountains of southwest Virginia?

Luckily for Virginia Tech fans, that’s exactly what Felicia Willoughby did. Now the Hokies’ star senior middle blocker, Willoughby has enjoyed three-plus award-winning and record-breaking seasons for the orange and maroon since arriving in Blacksburg as a promising freshman in 2007.

“I kind of wanted to go somewhere far away from home,” Willoughby said of her decision. “Virginia Tech looked really nice in the brochure and the campus looked really pretty, so I thought I’d just check it out and look at it. I visited here and I loved it.”

It was just the latest in a series of moves for the roving 6-footer, who wasn’t as attached to California as you might think. Willoughby was actually born in Seoul, South Korea, to her Korean mother, Chin Chu, and her father, Doug, who met on a military base while Doug was stationed there in the late 1980s. Three months after Felicia was born, Doug’s military duties took him and his new family to the massive naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. The Tidewater area is definitely Virginia Tech recruiting territory, so was Willoughby destined to be a Hokie from the start?

“I don’t remember Virginia too well,” she laughed.

That’s because when Felicia was 2, the Willoughbys briefly moved to New Mexico, where her brother, Lance, was born, before trekking up to Alaska for much of Felicia’s childhood. It was a childhood that, surprisingly, didn’t involve volleyball – or many other games for that matter.

“I actually didn’t play any sports, other than tee ball, when I lived in Alaska,” Willoughby said. “It was only when I moved to California [that I played sports].”

That move came in the middle of her seventh-grade year, right in the dead of the Alaskan winter.

“It might have been 60 degrees in California and we were walking around in shorts and t-shirts,” she remembered. “Everyone thought we were crazy, but we thought it was really warm.”

What was crazy was the fact that Willoughby still didn’t touch a volleyball upon her arrival in Pleasanton, a suburb of the San Francisco Bay area, instead drawing toward softball and basketball. While most girls begin playing volleyball in middle school, Willoughby didn’t take it up until the ninth grade, and she did so on a whim.

“Once I got to high school, I thought, ‘Volleyball looks pretty fun. I might as well just try it out,’” she said. “I ended up loving it.”

Her coaches ended up loving it, too, placing her on the varsity team from the start. Admittedly awkward at first but a self-described fast learner, Willoughby was just two short years away from being named to the all-league first team and committing, after her initial visit, to Virginia Tech.

“I actually committed to Tech at the end of my sophomore year, so I was pretty young,” Willoughby said. “I came back for summer camps and stuff. I visited Tech a lot before I actually got here for my freshman year.”

In fact, Willoughby committed to the Hokies a full year before current head coach Chris Riley, now in his fifth season, was even hired to replace the departing Greg Smith in the summer of 2006. One of Riley’s first tasks as Tech’s head coach was to make sure his new middle blocker wasn’t changing her mind.

Felicia Willoughby started every game last season and led the Hokies with 139 blocks. She also finished second on the team with 332 kills.

“As soon as people heard that Greg was leaving, they started asking if Felicia was going to stay committed to us,” Riley said. “So we went to watch her play at club nationals and sat at her court for every match because we wanted to get to know her better and watch her play.

“She played on a very, very good club team with four or five other Pac-10 kids, so she wasn’t always the best one on the floor on a day-in, day-out basis. But I saw her potential as far as what she could be. She was exactly the kind of kid who we would have recruited right away and someone who we would have tried to get to come here.”

Willoughby stuck by her decision, and she’s certainly made the most of it. She wasted little time making her mark as a rookie, setting a Tech single-season record for blocks and getting named the Freshman of the Year by both the Atlantic Coast Conference and the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) East Region. Over her next two seasons, Willoughby became the first Hokie to earn back-to-back AVCA All-East Region honors and three consecutive All-ACC accolades after being named to the first team as both a sophomore and a junior. She also earned honorable mention AVCA All-America honors during both years, becoming the first Tech player to do that as well. And she’s done it all with complete humility.

“I don’t think it’s really affected her to be honest with you,” Riley said of all of Willoughby’s adulation from volleyball pundits. “She’s a pretty level-headed kid, and she is very much on board with the team concept. As great as Felicia is, it’s not a big change for her – I don’t think it matters one way or the other. The accolades are all great, but it’s really a team game and she understands that. Without [setter] Erin [Leaser] and without our serve receive, she’s not going to get the amount of balls that she gets. She understands that it takes everybody to win.”

“I don’t really think about breaking all these records because we have so many other good players on the team,” Willoughby echoed. “If they didn’t do well, I wouldn’t do well. Having people who support me both on and off the court helps a lot.”

At press time, Willoughby was fewer than 40 blocks away from the Virginia Tech all-time record of 494 held by Jennifer Schmidt (1992-95). Though there is still much left to accomplish as a Hokie – “We have to make the NCAA Tournament this year,” she declared – Willoughby is already looking forward to her next move.

“I eventually want to be an event planner or a wedding planner, but I want to play volleyball overseas in Europe for a couple of years,” Willoughby said. “I was actually in Brazil this past summer playing some volleyball. I’ll play for whoever takes me. There are a bunch of leagues, so I’ll go anywhere. I love traveling, so I think I could adjust pretty well.”

“It’s definitely something that Felicia can absolutely do,” Riley added. “She’s a good player and she adapts very well to just about any situation. She can defend and she can pass a little bit, so she’ll fit into the professional game fairly well. I think she could have a good career. For her, I think it’s something that she could do for a couple years, and then she’ll use her degree [in psychology]. She’ll get what she needs out of it and then use her education to continue her life and do what she’s doing.”

Wherever Willoughby ends up going, one thing’s for sure. She might not be there for long. After all, there are far too many other places to see.