Villanova volleyball coach Josh Steinbach saw the film on this young prospect in Texas and was interested in recruiting her. The coach saw the possibilities, but was told this girl wanted to go to a college only where she could play volleyball in the fall and high-jump in the winter and spring.
Steinbach checked with Villanova’s track and field office. Had the coaches heard of this high school sophomore? They had not, but said they’d do a little research.
A coach got back to Steinbach — oh yeah, put them down as interested.
Fast-forward to Saturday afternoon, inside Jake Nevin Field House. Villanova’s ultimate frisbee players in their usual balcony bleacher seats right over midcourt. (Those guys were into it, to the point of learning the first names of both the opposing coach and the ref.)
“She’s so big!’’ one of the guys shouted as he jumped out of his seat after a Sanaa Barnes spike bounced off the floor. The guy didn’t mean big as in large or tall — he was simply describing how high Barnes was off the ground, and how that impacted the play.
Makes sense that a high jumper doesn’t need a bar to jump high.
Villanova, 20-6 overall, 11-3 in the Big East, has all sorts of top-shelf volleyball players. What makes this sophomore unique is her height.
“On a good day, I’ll say I’m 5-8,’’ Barnes said. “On a bad day, I’m 5-7.”
Not unusual for the sport, except those are your setters usually, your backline players. How many right-side hitters do you see like that at the net at this college level?
“I think she’s the only one I’ve seen, that I can recall — ever,’’ said Steinbach, Villanova’s coach for 13 seasons, amending his answer to maybe one or two over the years. These days, Steinbach said, the hitters aren’t just tall, more than 6 feet, but more and more athletic.
“She might be a world-class athlete,’’ Steinbach said. “She is someone who, every team we play, they have to account for.”
As a high jumper, Barnes was the only freshman to make All-American indoors and outdoors, to be within a centimeter of qualifying for the Olympic trials (this spring’s big goal), a national champion at all sorts of age levels, Texas state high school champion — a half-inch beyond 6 feet already last winter, good for a Villanova record and fourth place at last year’s NCAA indoor national championships. (Barnes was sixth outdoors.)
Since this is volleyball season, all that can wait. Barnes, from Keller, Texas, near Dallas, found out that college volleyball recruiting began early in high school (before recent rule changes, she noted) while track was later in high school. So college volleyball coaches were first to recruit her.
“They’d tell me the track team didn’t want me," she said. "Come to find out, the track team really wanted me, but the volleyball coach didn’t want them to want me.”
Volleyball is a top-tier NCAA scholarship sport, like football and men’s and women’s basketball, while track and field is not, so her scholarship, by rule, has to be fully in volleyball. At least one volleyball coach told Barnes that she could also high-jump, but if the coach told her to stop, she’d have to stop.
“Josh was all about allowing me to do both,’’ Barnes said of Steinbach, recalling him telling her, “Why would I keep you from doing something you love?‘’
Track had been her first sport.
“I was 9 years old,’’ Barnes said. “I was not good at anything. I’m a very lengthy person, but at a younger age, I had ginormous feet, long arms, long limbs. I was very uncoordinated, a mess. Technique did not come easy.
"I was coming in last [in sprints.] My parents did not think I’d like it. I had asthma for the longest time. Track helped clear that up, teaches you to breathe and run.”
She surprised even herself by deciding she loved the whole thing. Early on, a coach told her to jump over the bar. No clue about technique, she went over it. Her first year, she qualified for a national meet, came in 10th.
She was a basketball player, too, and added volleyball, although cartilage issues made her parents decide she had to give something up. She couldn’t decide, so they did. Bye-bye, hoops. Volleyball had its own little physical issue.
“For the longest time, I was playing volleyball blind — I could not see the ball,’’ Barnes said. “Once, it hit me in the face.”
That led to a quick trip to get her eyes checked, and a glasses prescription. Not for high jumping, though.
“I prefer to jump blind,’’ Barnes said. “Because it forces to me to trust my body, and not my eyesight. I actually think that’s one of my advantages. I can feel my body and where it is to get over the bar.”
To get over that bar, Barnes said, she has to understand where her body needs to be positioned every second. ‘If I miss, I have be ready in two minutes to get over that bar that I just knocked over.”
Villanova jumps coach Anthony Williams attributes most of Barnes’ high-jump accomplishments to "genetics,'' noting that she clearly got to college with strong fundamentals and good coaching. But without doing fall conditioning and offseason "basic technical work,'' she has relied heavily on natural ability. He’s not complaining. He knows she’s doing it the way she wants, and knows how far that has taken her.
Let’s guess her hyper focus on the bar itself translates to volleyball.
“I have to be smart,’’ Barnes said. “I can’t go up and just kill the ball. There might be a bunch of 6-4 girls in my face. I have to be able to manipulate the ball.”
Barnes isn’t just high in the sky. If she can stay up there a little longer, that lets her see what’s happening just on the other side of the net, make her move as late as possible.
Steinbach suggested Barnes is best in that mode, picking her spots.
“She tends to struggle with a smaller [opposing] blocker,’’ Villanova’s coach said. “Her eyes get big. She can bounce balls and show off. In volleyball, that’s the ooh and ah stuff, the slam dunk. She likes that moment. She’s looking for that.”
“I definitely feed off the crowd’s energy, a lot,’’ Barnes said. “The way I grew up — I’m from Texas — sports is a huge deal. I always was in front of a crowd, even jumping. I’m used to eyes on me.”
And if there’s extra notice because the little one by the net is giving away many inches, all part of the deal.
“It’s fun when I’m over their heads,’’ Barnes said.
It’s not like she dominated that day against Providence. Villanova took it in three sets, but it was a team effort all the way around, the frisbee players out of their seats for others, too. The night before, Villanova had beaten Big East front-runner Creighton when Barnes sat out with an oblique strain.
It’s just that … when this one girl gets big, the whole place notices.