For her first two years playing volleyball at DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky., Deja McClendon really had no idea just how good a player she was. That all changed on Sept. 1 of her junior year.
"I came home that day and my mom handed me a stack of letters," said McClendon. "Even though my coaches had talked to me about college when I was 15, I don’t think it actually hit me until the recruiting letters started coming in. That’s when I knew I was going to play college ball."
McClendon, one of the top players in the state of Kentucky, has committed to play at Penn State next season.
"I went through most of the recruiting process early in my junior year and it was really stressful to balance that and school," said McClendon. "My parents helped me out so much by gathering research and helping me figure out what is important to me, which made it easier. The hardest part about it was not actually choosing but having to say no to coaches that I really liked.
"I am extremely excited to have a coach that wants to transform me into something great," McClendon added. "I can’t wait to learn and work hard for something that I’ve always wanted. But I really can’t wait to represent Penn State and to play in front of a really big crowd."
Big crowds aren’t anything new for McClendon, though. In club volleyball, McClendon competed on some of the best teams in the country.
"My most memorable moment was first walking out on the Freedom Hall court to play for the JDVA national championship and seeing my whole family in the stands," she said. "Playing in front of 6,500 people in your hometown is the most amazing volleyball experience of my entire life. It is still the biggest game that I have ever played in my career."
McClendon’s team won the JDVA Nationals and later placed fifth at the AAU Nationals. McClendon earned All-American honors in both tournaments to go along with the all-state honors she earned in Kentucky as a junior. McClendon’s high school varsity career ended two weeks ago when her team was eliminated from the Kentucky state playoffs by Assumption. An outside hitter, McClendon played six years of varsity volleyball, including two years at Kentucky Country Day when she was in seventh and eighth grades.
"I was only in seventh grade when I first started and I hardly knew the rules," she said. "I remember the first serve came over, everyone else started transitioning and I just stood still in the middle of the court, not knowing where to go. It is extremely embarrassing to think about it now."
McClendon transformed from an unsure seventh grader into one of the top players in the nation thanks to the help of several coaches, including Ron Kordes, Melissa Stark-Bean and Dan Palmer.
"Ron has always helped me make the really important decisions in my volleyball career, not to mention he is the one who convinced me to play club ball in the first place," she said. "Melissa was the first coach to make me believe that I was a leader. She instilled in me the will to win, to work hard for your team and most of all to love competition. Dan was the coach that taught me that volleyball is just as much mental as it is physical and when worst comes to worst, just put the ball down."
McClendon put the ball down on opponents on a regular basis this year as she finished as the team leader with 315 kills. However McClendon doesn’t feel that hitting is necessarily her biggest strength.
"I believe that my biggest strength is keeping my team together," she said. "I try to make sure my team is having fun or is at least upbeat because then the volleyball comes naturally."
McClendon’s coach, Kyle Wood, agrees with her assessment.
"Where she stands out are the little moments that don’t show up on the stat sheet or on the highlight reel," he said. "The times in practice when she runs with a teammate that is struggling with a drill, after she completed her share. The smiles, high-fives and encouraging words in the huddle during highs and lows."
While Assumption ended DuPont Manual’s season, McClendon and her teammates accomplished at least one of her goals this year.
"I really wanted to beat Mercy, Sacred Heart and Assumption," she said. "We defeated Mercy this year and we took Sacred Heart to five very close games."
Mercy concluded its season last week with a win over Sacred Heart for the state championship. The strong showing by Mercy, Sacred Heart, Assumption and DuPont Manual is a testament to the type of volleyball played in the city of Louisville.
"Louisville is the friendliest place you will ever go," said McClendon. "It’s quiet but it has plenty of things to do and the volleyball here is like a buried treasure. Not many people know about it but we have some great, undiscovered talent just waiting to break out."
While Louisville has many great volleyball teams, McClendon’s favorite team is actually a football squad.
"My favorite sports team is the Lyndon Lightnin, my youngest brother’s football team," she said. "They are all fourth graders, but they are all so dedicated, especially for being so young. I wish I was more like my borther Jordan because he is so optimistic. It takes a whole lot to bring him down."
McClendon is a lot like the other members of her family. Her father played basketball at the University of Cincinnati in the 1980s and her sister is already and All-American in volleyball at the college level.
"My entire family plays sports, except my mom," said McClendon. "Unless TaiBo counts."
With her college career rapidly coming into view, McClendon looks forward to her time as a Nittany Lion. Wood feels that she will be an unqualified success.
"Just meeting her is enough to know that she is special," he said. "She has this infectious smile and attitude. She just lights up the locker room, huddle and classroom. She makes a lasting impression on everything and everyone."