Taylor Formico’s path to women’s college volleyball stardom was not an easy one.
And that might be putting it mildly.
As a 5-foot-6 setter at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif., Formico (who played club for City Beach) helped the team to a CIF title her junior year, earning CIF MVP and Division II player-of-the-year honors.
But once it came time to hop on the college recruitment train, there were no tickets available in the setting car.
She had to accept a role as a libero-defensive specialist.
“I hated it at first, but if I wanted to play at the highest level, it was the only position I could have played,” says Formico, who just finished her senior season at UCLA and is part of the 12-player 2016 VolleyballMag.com women’s college All-American first team. “I had been a setter my whole life.”
Formico, whose cousin is three-time Olympic beach-volleyball gold-medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings, found getting a spot on a college team as a DS to be a challenge.
“I tried to go to UCLA out of high school but they weren’t interested because I had never played the position before,” she says. “It’s tough. There are a lot of schools out there with 5-6 DS’s. It’s hard to get on a squad.”
Formico ended up at UCSB her freshman year and was thankful for the opportunity from since-retired volleyball great Kathy Gregory.
“Kathy Gregory helped me so much in transitioning to the position,” she says.
After Gregory retired, Formico ended up transferring to the school that had eluded her before.
“I had to sit out a year and that was hard,” she says. “I didn’t have a gym to practice in. I played in a rec league so I could keep up playing. UCLA was very patient with me getting back into things because I hadn’t really played in 16 months.”
But Formico was far from done dealing with adversity. She had a hip injury that became progressively worse over the last three years.
“My sophomore year at UCLA I did some physical tests and didn’t pass the MRI,” she explains. “I tried to play through it. I don’t remember how I did it. It got to the point where it was numb.”
Formico ended up having surgery to repair a torn labrum in her left hip.
“The pain started out at about a six and eventually got to a 10,” she says. “That’s why I got surgery. Not a lot of people knew about the injury outside the coaches and the team. The doctor said it’s the type of injury where you can play on it until you can’t play anymore. I couldn’t play on it anymore.”
Formico admits she was worried earlier in her tenure at UCLA about the prospects of having the hip surgically repaired.
“I had never been injured before,” she says. “I love playing the game so much. It scared me because I didn’t have a good first year at UCLA. The second year I played on it and had a good year. And then I thought, ‘OK, go get the surgery and hopefully I’ll be even better after it.’”
But the recovery time from the surgery weighed on Formico’s mind. She had more business to take care of on the UCLA court this season.
“It was rough at the beginning because I was cleared two weeks before double-days started,” she says. “I missed all the off-season training. It also was tough because we graduated two defensive specialists. I knew I would have more court to cover because we didn’t have as many DS’s playing in the back row.”
Formico, the Pac-12 libero of the year in 2015 and 2016, came back stronger and more determined than ever this season.
“Being a senior captain, I put a lot of stress on myself,” she says. “I wanted to be as good as I could be, but I knew I had to be patient and be a good leader for my teammates. I had to appreciate the process.”
Formico had 659 digs this season (5.15 per set) and ranked sixth among all NCAA Division I players in total digs and 20th in digs per set. She finished her run between UCSB and UCLA with more than 2,000 career digs. UCLA out-dug its opponents by more than a full dig this season.
“Taylor set the standard in our gym the last two years,” UCLA coach Mike Sealy says. “Her ability to work and keep that standard in times of stress and, more importantly, in low-stress, mundane activities make her consistent and reliable. What has impressed me the most is she is a hard-core perfectionist who has softened her edge enough to maintain a very high standard, but is available to give energy to teammates and be there for them at all times.”
Formico says she learned plenty in her post-surgery form.
“By the end I felt close to 100 percent,” she says. “I definitely wanted to embrace it. Coming back from the surgery, my main focus was learning to take more court and learning to play with people. I learned different leadership roles. There were times where I just wanted to focus on the game and be as good as I was the year before, but it took a while to get my touch back. I also had to get used to diving on my hip again. I was hesitant at first. It was awkward because I had played on a bad hip for a couple years and had developed bad habits.”
As far as the immediate future, Formico, who graduated in December with a degree in sociology, is currently working on getting her insurance and real-estate licenses and plans on joining her family in the insurance business.
“They all do Farmers Insurance so I am currently buying an agency and getting my licenses,” she explains.
In terms of playing the sport again, Formico has ruled out playing overseas.
“I am a home body,” she says. “Playing months at a time overseas is not something that interests me. I couldn’t be away from my family for that long.”
But if the phone rang and it was USA Volleyball on the other end?
“If I have the opportunity to try out or practice with the national team I will most likely take that opportunity,” she says. “It would be an honor and an amazing experience to compete in the same gym with the best of the best.”
Overall, Formico is quite satisfied with how her final season and career in Westwood played out both on and off the court.
“I’m happy how I played this year,” she says. “We had a pretty good year getting to the elite eight. I’m super-pleased that I overcame the injury. I had a lot of doubts. I had a good freshman year at UCSB but that wasn’t the Pac-12.
“I got to the Pac-12 and I overcame a lot of personal struggles with my confidence and played at a high level. I’m pleased with how I faced the challenge and I’m pleased with the player and person I’ve become because of volleyball.”