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Volleyball Freshman Embraces Challenges and Makes an Impact
Women's Volleyball  . 

Volleyball Freshman Embraces Challenges and Makes an Impact

by Brad Muller, Director of Content

It’s not easy for a freshman to make an impact right away in college athletics, especially if you’re considered to be slightly undersized at your position, but South Carolina rookie Riley Whitesides has embraced any challenge thrown her way and has made a big impact for Gamecock Volleyball. The 5’11” outside hitter has been named SEC Freshman of the Week three times and is proving to be a key piece for the program to build around for head coach Tom Mendoza.
Riley Whitesides (Freshman)
“When I was growing up, a lot of people didn’t think I would play Division One volleyball because of my size,” Whitesides said. “To some degree you have to be tall, but I think it’s all mindset. Sometimes I hit against girls, and it feels like they’re six inches taller than me. I just have to have an aggressive mindset and know that height does not mean everything. I got good at my jumping when I was growing up, and I have to be smart where I hit the ball. I have to be more crafty than other people, but I like my height. I think people sometimes underestimate me because of my height.”

The Greenville, S.C., native’s route to be a Gamecock was circuitous, as she had committed to another school early in her high school career, but a coaching change led her to reconsider, and her travel ball coach contacted the South Carolina staff.

“When I came on my visit, it just felt like home,” Whitesides said. “Everyone was really welcoming to me. They made me feel special, and they made me feel wanted. Nothing changed when I got here.

“They’re so knowledgeable about the game,” she said of the South Carolina coaching staff. “They taught me a lot about everything, and way more than I thought I would learn. There is so much more to the college game.

“Since the beginning of them recruiting me, Tom has put confidence in me. He’s given me confidence in myself. He puts me in situations because he believes in me. Knowing that my head coach believes in me and has confidence that I can go out and perform really means a lot.”

Whitesides was hooked on the sport early in life as she started playing volleyball in the second grade and got into travel ball three years later.

“I liked that it was a team sport and that we celebrated together after every point. I think that is really cool because in some sports you’re far away and spread out (while playing). We’re close together, and it’s very team-oriented.

“In eighth grade is when I started getting looks from people. It was letters in the mail, and then getting invited into camps. It was probably the most stressful thing I’ve had to deal with so far because my senior year when I switched, I didn’t know where I was going.”

“I’m proud of where I’m from. We have pride in our state.”

Whitesides credits her mother and stepfather, Heather and Phil Justice, in helping her through the process.
Riley Whitesides 2020-2021
“My parents did a really good job of keeping me grounded through it all. My mom was my biggest help at that time. It was a lot for my whole high school (career) to just worry about where I was going because you had teammates committing, and you wanted to be the next one to commit on your team. It was really stressful.
“I’m really close to my parents. Volleyball made me close to them because it was a way for us to connect in a different way than my other (six) siblings because they got to travel with me to my tournaments while supporting me and watching my games. They’re really big on hard work. That’s something I’m going to take with me forever, and I think that’s helped me so far. I talk to them all the time. They come to every home game, and they come to a lot of away games.” 

While Whitesides’ career is off to a great start, it wasn’t always easy.

“When I first got here, it was stressful,” Whitesides said. “Everyone is just faster and stronger. When you get to the SEC, everybody is the best of the best. The biggest challenge is being consistent with my game as well as the speed of the game. You’re just a freshman trying to impress the team and make a name for yourself. I definitely had to prove myself. The coaches are really good about not putting pressure on us.

“I honestly didn’t know what to expect. There are older girls at my position, and it was intimidating. My parents gave me a lot of confidence in myself. My stepdad was really big on that. He has always been one of my biggest fans. He was my club assistant coach when I was younger. His main thing was to be the encourager and the loud cheerleader on the sidelines. Whenever he comes to my games here, I’ll be on the court and I can hear him cheering. It can be a little bit embarrassing, but it’s all out of love.”

The COVID-19 pandemic caused volleyball’s season to be an SEC-only schedule and was extended from the usual fall season into the spring. The lengthy season has given Whitesides the chance to grow her confidence and her game throughout the year.

“I feel like I can consider myself a leader in some way. Obviously, other people have a bigger role. Energy really impacts the game. I’m just trying to keep my energy high and keep my energy positive. I feel like that’s a way I can lead the team. I haven’t been here that long, so I’m accepting that I’m young.”

Two of her older siblings are student-athletes at other in-state schools, with one sister, Olivia, having rowed at Clemson, while another sister, Faith, plays volleyball at The Citadel. While there is some friendly trash-talking, Whitesides is proud to be a Gamecock.

“I’m proud of where I’m from. We have pride in our state.

“I really like being independent and living on my own, while still having my parents and my family near so that I can communicate with them. I love my teammates. Getting to play volleyball here is just the dream!”