Rockville Centre native Kayla Principato could be on the brink of representing the United States on its Olympic volleyball team. A longtime dream of hers, she can almost taste it.
Sitting in her parents’ living room a few days before New Year’s Day — Christmas tree still standing, a log burning in the fireplace — Principato told the Herald, “I’ve always had the motivation to be really good,” she corrected herself, “the best, at volleyball.”
Last summer, before heading into her senior season with the University of Denver Pioneers, Principato, a 2014 South Side High School graduate, earned a spot on the United States women’s volleyball team. Three days into her training in Minneapolis, Minn., the 6-foot-3 athlete recalled being “mashed in the eye” by a volleyball, leaving her with a damaged retina and a concussion.
“I was playing the best volleyball I had every played in my life,” Principato said of her short time playing with the squad. After her injury, she added, “They didn’t even want me in the gym. If I got even tapped on the head by the ball, my retina could have detached completely.”
She now wears what she calls “forever goggles” because, due to her injury, she’ll have to wear them while playing for the rest of her career. They were gifted to her from an Olympian who suffered the same injury that she did.
Unable to continue playing, she returned home in August. But back in Denver for her senior season, she earned a number of accolades, including the Summit League Tournament Most Valuable Player, and Offensive Player of the Week. With 279 kills on the season, Principato helped the team claim the Summit League regular season and tournament titles in November.
She registered her 1000th point against Omaha on Oct. 3, leaving Denver with a .263 career hitting percentage, tied for 10th all-time.
Some players drop out the second half of their senior year to play professionally in Europe, she said, adding that there is no professional women’s volleyball league in the United States. Principato said that she wants to stick it out and earn her diploma.
She said she expects to try out for the national team again in March, and expects to start getting offers from European teams later in the semester. Her agent had some offers waiting for her when she returned from the break earlier this month, but she said she didn’t want to look at them until she was actually ready to sign.
Principato didn’t grow up with volleyball. She came to it in middle school, “on a whim,” she said. “I didn’t even really know what volleyball was. But I tried out and made it.” People told her that she had the qualities it would take to excel at the sport. “I have the perfect body type, I’m left handed,” she noted, “which is perfect for my position — right-side hitter.”
Enjoying the sport’s team aspect, she signed up for club squads and travel teams. “It’s more competitive,” she said. “I loved it.”
Her travel team stayed mostly regional, participating in tournaments in New Jersey and Connecticut. When she was a junior at South Side High School, the coaches decided to fly the team to Texas for a tournament.
“Volleyball here isn’t as competitive as places out west,” she said. By that time, she knew she wanted to play in college, and that the other side of the country had better opportunities for volleyball players. She was hoping that she could show off her skills to the scouts in Texas, and had also signed up to try out for the junior national team.
But she suffered a hand injury during practice in the weeks prior to the tournament. “I was freaking out,” Principato said. “There were going to be a lot of coaches from the West Coast there.”
She went to physical therapy, and committed wholeheartedly to recovering in time. “I did like four [muscle stimulation therapies] a day,” she explained. “I went on this super healthy diet. I was willing to do anything to be ready for this qualifier.”
The day before she left, the doctor gave her the go-ahead to play. “He was in disbelief that I had recovered that fast,” she said. When she got there, she struggled with whether to tryout for the junior national team. “I didn’t want to re-hurt my finger right before the tournament. My coaches would have been so angry.”
But her mother suggested that she do the tryout with only her good hand. “She told me, ‘It’ll get the rust off’” since she hadn’t played in a month.
After the tryout, she recalled, “I thought I did OK, but I really had no idea.” Afterward, she was approached by a coach, who she later found out was Tom Hogan, head coach for the Pioneers who as an Olympic coach had led Team USA to a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
She found out later that year that she made the junior national team based on her one-handed tryout. But that day, when Principato got back to the hotel, there was an email from Hogan waiting for her, offering her a full scholarship to the University of Denver and inviting her to tour the campus. “I visited and I loved it,” she said. I just loved everything.”
As for her future, Principato said, there are a lot of unknowns. But she knows one thing: “I just want to play volleyball until my mind and body tell me I can’t anymore.”