DOWNINGTOWN >> In her first season of high school volleyball, Cara Shultz made such a big splash, she wound up a first team All-District 1 selection, and a member of the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association 4A All-State team. And it’s worth noting that of the 50 players to receive all-state honors, Shultz was the only freshman of the bunch.
So when Bishop Shanahan’s young star was absent from the 2016 All-Ches-Mont first team, and relegated to the second, it raised a few eyebrows.
“The all-league team is pretty political,” explained Shanahan head coach Greg Ashman.
“At first, I was a little surprised, but then I realized it’s still a big accomplishment,” Shultz added. “It really didn’t bother me.”
After making such a strong introductory statement this fall, plenty of individual accolades are sure to be headed Shultz’s way over the next few years. At the tender age of 15, Shultz just completed perhaps the greatest rookie volleyball campaign in Chester County history, which was more than enough to earn Daily Local News Player of the Year honors.
“Cara is the most dominant hitter in the area, maybe in the state,” said Ashman, who’s built Shanahan into a state powerhouse.
It’s easy to label Shultz a rookie wonder, but the West Brandywine Township native has actually been playing volleyball — and amazing onlookers — since age 8. Ashman knew all about Shultz well before she showed up for preseason practices last summer because her older sisters, Rita and Renee, also played for him.
“Both of my older sisters started playing at a young age, so it was kind of a natural for me,” Cara said. “They’ve had an amazing influence on me. I’ve always wanted to be like them. They are very good role models.”
Rita’s final high school volleyball season, in 2014, was Renee’s freshman year. Now a junior, Renee is also an All-District and All-State pick, and she is mentoring her younger sister.
“I think Cara did a great job. I kind of expected her to come in strong, and the difficult things she adapted to as we went along,” Renee said.
“I’m sure it was huge having Renee here for her,” Ashman added. “I remember when Renee was a freshman, it was the same thing. She was more talented than most of the kids on the team and she also had her older sister there.”
Ashman recalled that at one point just prior to a big postseason match, he asked Renee to have a talk with her younger sister in order to calm the nerves of a youngster dealing with pressures usually reserved for upperclassmen.
“That might have been the district final,” Cara said. “I told (Ashman) I was nervous, and I guess he had Renee talk to me in the hallway. I actually didn’t know that he did that until right now.
“On the court, it’s not like Renee is my sister but a friend and teammate. Off the court, she’s helped me a lot.”
The combination paid huge dividends as Shultz amassed jaw-dropping statistics, helping the Eagles go 24-1. Shanahan won the Ches-Mont crown, repeated as District 1 champs, and advanced to the semifinals of the PIAA State Tournament — and Shultz led the team with an astounding 378 kills. That averages out to more than 15 kills per match.
“Cara is, by far, the most physical of the sisters,” Ashman explained. “Renee is probably the most athletic and Rita had the higher volleyball IQ.
“Cara is just pure power, and that works when you are in seventh or eighth grade. But now against high school competition, she’s had to learn to play smarter. Like when to hit fast and hard, when to change it up. She is very receptive to all of the coaching we give her.”
In addition to being a dominant force at the net, Shultz also possesses a jump-serve that quickly developed into a lethal weapon. She led the county with 102 service aces, and paced Shanahan with 246 points on her serve.
“At the beginning of the season, it was just hitting (the serve) as hard as I could,” Shultz acknowledged. “But then throughout the season, coach (Ashman) helped me learn how to serve short and how to hit at certain spots.
“The difference was pretty noticeable by the end of the season, but it’s not perfect. I still have a lot to work on.”
Shultz may be a prodigy, but she talks an awful lot about getting better. Her season hit percentage of .290 was pretty good, but she isn’t satisfied. At 5-foot-10, Shultz may still grow a few inches, but she is more concerned about increasing her vertical leap.
“That is one of the top things on my list to work on,” she said. “Being able to get higher is important if I am hitting against seniors like (Avon Grove’s) Chloe Kleespies, who is 6-3. I want to get to the point where I can just hit over the block.”
Ashman says that at the net Shultz contacted the volleyball at around the nine-foot mark this fall. If she can find a way to increase that another eight to 12 inches, he believes that the sky is the limit.
“If she keeps progressing, it’s going to be amazing,” he said. “To be a very dominant player, I would love to see her contact the ball at about 10 feet. If she can get to that … all I can say is ‘wow.’”
For the season, Shultz chipped in 258 digs, but she knows that in order to become a more complete player, progress needs to be made in areas like passing and defense. Throughout the 2016 season, Shultz had the air of a confident, focused player who wasn’t overly excitable or vocal. Ashman said that he expects to see her make strides as a team leader as she matures.
“Cara knows her talent, but she is very humble with it,” Ashman said.
“I was the youngest on the team, and it didn’t seem like I should be overly vocal,” Shultz pointed out. “But think in the next few years I’ll become more vocal and hopefully become more of a leader.
“I think the future for Shanahan volleyball is very bright. I feel like, with the players we have, we could go on to win a state title, maybe two.”
With three full seasons of high school volleyball still on the horizon, Shultz isn’t looking too far ahead right now. But she did admit that there are times she thinks about playing the game in college.
“I think it would be cool to play Division I college volleyball someday,” she said. “That would be a dream come true.”