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BIG NAME IN A SMALL POND

Eckerd's Taylor Manning has a famous dad, but now it's her time.

Danny Manning tries to blend in with the rest of the volleyball parents, sitting in the back of the stands at Eckerd College's McArthur Center.

Manning, 43 and retired after 15 years in the NBA, looks like he could still play. But the 6-foot-10 University of Kansas legend has a busy slate these days, juggling his duties as an assistant coach for the Jayhawks and being the biggest fan of his daughter, Eckerd freshman middle blocker Taylor Manning.

Manning, a two-time All-American who led Kansas to the 1988 national title and was inducted last year into the Collegiate Basketball Hall Of Fame, has been to almost all of Taylor's early season matches (home and road), flying back and forth from Lawrence.

Senior Lydee Benoit said Manning often gives players congratulatory fist-bumps after matches and encouraging words, and he has had plenty of chances as the Tritons cracked the American Volleyball Coaches Association Division II Top 25for the first time in program history, No. 21 as of Sept. 14.

"I hear him sometimes," Benoit said. "He's constantly talking. He's constantly having a positive attitude."

Like father, like daughter. In most ways, that is. Taylor, 6 feet, turned down a scholarship offer from Division I Kansas to come to Eckerd, which actively recruited her by offering her a chance to make an immediate impact and live close to the beach, which she has loved since she was born in Los Angeles 19 years ago.

Taylor, who attended high school in Lawrence, said she'll "always be a Jayhawk," her favorite team. But as her father knows, she always has been her own person.

"This is her path," he said. "This is her journey. That's what it's all about."

Her journey, from the California sunshine to one of the best freshmen in the Sunshine State Conference, according to coach Courtney Draper, had several stops.

But her father has always been a constant. Taylor said she and younger brother Evan would go to a lot of his NBA games with the Clippers and Suns, getting a firsthand look at the competitiveness and focus of professional athletes.

And her father would return the favor, taking time to go to as many volleyball matches as he could, wherever they lived, even if he could only make an appearance before a flight.

"My family is my support system, regardless of where we lived, regardless of any situation. My family is always there for me," Taylor said.

Her parents were also a driving force in supporting her decision to attend Eckerd, even as she was recruited by Kansas, Rutgers and Valparaiso. Draper said she had a "long courtship" with Taylor after first spotting her at nationals her junior year.

It was a "very tough" decision, one she took a long time to make. But she found the school and volleyballprogram a perfect fit.

Her mother, Julie, accompanied Taylor on her first recruiting visit, and when she began to lean in Eckerd's direction, her father made a separate trip to meet with Draper and visit the school.

"We tried to give (our kids) enough worldly experiences to make decisions like this on their own when it comes time," Danny Manning said. "It was her decision, and we support her whatever she wants to do. She made a great choice. She's happy. We're happy."

Taylor's versatility has made her one of two freshmen starters. (Former Lakewood High standout Taylor Whaley is the other.) The Tritons (6-5) upset two then-Top 25 teams this month, and Benoit - one of the best players in program history - said a big reason why is the completely new attitude brought by the younger players, including Taylor.

Her decision to attend Eckerd has worked out off the court, too. Aside from having the beach, the art lover is taking a ceramics class and trying her hand in theater production: "Never done it before, but thought I might as well try it."

After all, it's those same instincts that brought her here.

"I know ... I'll always be able to go back to KU," she said. "I'll always be a Jayhawk. ... But I wanted to broaden my horizons. I thought it'd be a fun adventure."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

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