CLEARWATER — Recently graduated Osceola High softball standout Allison Shirley stands with her feet shoulder-width apart, the palms of her hands resting on her upper thighs as she bends slightly at the waist.
She studies her opponent across the way, eyes the ball as it rapidly approaches and, in one graceful movement, lunges to intercept the ball.
It's a scene repeated continuously throughout the life of 18-year-old Shirley, who has played softball since age 5.
The only difference? This time Shirley is reaching to dig a volleyball instead of gobbling up a grounder.
Saturday morning, Shirley competed in the Dig the Beach volleyball series surrounding Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach, going 1-3 with partner Carey Froelicher in pool play in the A group.
Despite not making it out of her pool at the tournament, Shirley has been relatively successful in a sport she only recently began playing competitively.
In middle school, Shirley played softball, volleyball, basketball, soccer, swam and ran track. Softball, followed closely by swimming, was her best sport. As she moved into high school, Shirley threw every pitch for Osceola during her freshman and sophomore years and in 2006 led the Warriors to their first regional playoff softball berth in three years. After switching to third base as a senior, Shirley was the Warriors' top hitter and was named to the St. Petersburg Times All-Pinellas County first team.
She swam on the Osceola 400 free and 200 medley relay teams that set school records this season and was a regional qualifier all four years.
Volleyball was an afterthought, that is until softball became too, well, boring for Shirley, who tries to stay active and despises days off.
"I wasn't happy anymore (with softball). I felt like I didn't want to do it," said Shirley, who is also a competitive triathlete, finishing third in the Athena division at this year's St. Anthony's Triathlon. "I played volleyball in high school, but I wasn't competitive with it until my junior year. I started really focusing on volleyball because I wanted to see what else was out there. It was hard at first because everybody had been playing a lot longer than me, and I was still learning. I felt really behind. But once I caught on, I really liked it."
Shirley was encouraged during her junior year by current Boca Ciega volleyball coach Lauren Kaminski to try out for the Gulf Coast Juniors club team, where Kaminski was an instructor. Shirley's success with Gulf Coast fueled her passion to continue pursuing volleyball.
"We were like, 'How can you play club? You've got swimming and you've got softball,' " Shirley's mother, Kathy, said. "But she said that she really wanted to try, so we let her do it. And it turned out to be great. She has a lot of potential."
After attending a summer volleyball camp at the University of North Florida before her senior year, Shirley was invited to walk on to the Division I Ospreys — despite the coaching staff having never watched her play a high school match. Shirley says she'll have an opportunity to earn a scholarship after spending a year in the UNF program.
"I'm not expecting to play a lot because I know I have a lot of things I need to learn and adjust to," she said. "My goal for this year is to improve overall. I'm not guaranteed anything. I just want to work really hard."
That's where beach volleyball enters the equation. Shirley uses the summer beach series to improve her passing, get better defensively and develop her all-around game. Plus, playing in the sand improves her vertical leaping ability.
"I can hit hard, and I'm strong," she said. "I just have to learn how to use that while jumping higher. Once I learn how to do that, I'll be good."
In April, the NCAA approved sand volleyball — named to encourage landlocked schools to participate — as an emerging sport for women, meaning it has been sanctioned but is not played widely enough to qualify for its own NCAA championship. The hope is sand volleyball will be cleared for varsity competition the following year. Once 40 schools sign on, the sport can stage a championship.
UNF will field a sand volleyball team in the spring. Shirley is eager to play.
"It's going to be cool. It's fun," said Shirley, who will major in exercise science and nutrition. "I'm excited to be a part of it because it's just starting out."