In 2007, Taylor Fricano knew she’d be getting blocks on the court. She just didn’t know in what sport.
“My seventh- and eighth-grade basketball coach (Rick Stocker) from junior high told me to try out for the volleyball team,” she said. “I was like, ‘No, I’m bad.’”
After getting cut from the volleyball team in seventh and eighth grade, she felt even more sure that her talents did not lie on the volleyball court. Stocker still wasn’t convinced.
“I told him, ‘I am a basketball player, Coach,’” she said. "‘I’m not a volleyball player.’ He said, ‘No, you need to go to your high school’s camp. You could be really good at this.’”
Out of respect for her coach, she listened. Now, it seems to have been the right decision.
She quickly began to adjust to the game. By her junior season at Palatine High School in Illinois, she was fielding offers from several universities. But off the court, there was one thing standing in her way.
“My junior year, colleges said, ‘You need to pick it up,’” she explained. “I wasn’t failing or anything, but I was skimming by with Bs, sometimes one A, a C most of the time. Always doing the bare minimum... At the end of my high school career I picked it up.”
The importance of balancing her studies and her sport has stuck with her. Today, she’s an honor-roll student and an all-conference athlete.
Fricano planned to commit to Dayton, but decided on Wisconsin when Dayton’s Kelly Sheffield accepted the head coaching job there.
With Wisconsin’s deep roster, Fricano made the decision to redshirt her first season. The following year, Fricano played seven of a possible 112 sets for the team. The lack of playing time put her at a difficult crossroads.
“I wasn’t going to play," Fricano said. "My coach told me that. We had our end of the season meeting and he said, ‘If I know you’re not going to play, do you want me to tell you?’ And I said yes, because he knew how important playing time was for me.”
Fricano remembered Sheffield telling her just before spring break in 2014 that he didn’t expect her to make the starting lineup in the fall.
“So I was like ‘Alright, let’s start looking,’” Fricano said.
Once she decided to reopen her recruitment process, it wasn’t clear that she would land in Chapel Hill.
“I honestly did not think I was going to come here,” she said. “I don’t feel bad saying that.”
Ironically, it was Wisconsin teammate Haleigh Nelson who helped her find a new home.
Nelson, Fricano’s best friend on the team, lived in Cary. So she used the trip as an opportunity to visit her friend and, while she was there, check out a new school that she had barely considered.
The visit proved more fruitful than Fricano had expected. Despite the lack of familiarity, something felt natural. That led to another tough decision — play for Notre Dame just under two hours away from home or move halfway across the country.
“I was not expecting to fall in love with the school because I wanted to stay close to home and it’s 800 miles away from home…” she said. “But it was really hard to say no.’”
As a redshirt sophomore, Fricano was starting to adjust to life in Chapel Hill.
In September of 2015, tragedy struck when her great uncle Bud passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. However, her new teammates rallied around her. Purple is pancreatic cancer’s official awareness color, so her teammates incorporated that into their support.
“Every single person on the team put purple in their hair, put purple in their shoes,” Fricano said. “I gave them ribbons, and I said, ‘If you want to wear it, you can.’”
“That kind of support for someone they didn’t even know — a transfer that had just come in — that was probably one of the most meaningful moments,” Fricano said.
In her sophomore season, she played in 79 sets but saw her playing time dwindle later in the year. Before her junior year, head coach Joe Sagula asked Fricano to switch from opposite hitter to middle hitter, a position she had not played since her first year of high school.
Some athletes have trouble making such a drastic switch, but Fricano flourished. She started all 33 matches in 2016 and tied a single-season record for block assists with 142. One of her best games came against her former school, when she tied a career high with 15 kills and led her team to an upset win over No. 2 Wisconsin.
Fricano is quick to deflect the praise for her accomplishments to her coaches.
“They invested so much time into me and they really believed I could do something,” she said. “I am a stubborn person. I want to do things my way. So when (the coaches) wanted me to do something I didn’t think I could do there was a lot of turmoil. Finally, I was like, ‘They have great resumes, you know; why am I not here listening?’”
Fricano was a leading figure on a team that made it all the way to the Sweet 16. She was a second-team All-ACC selection. And she wasn’t skimming by with Bs anymore. In 2016, she made the ACC’s All-Academic team, too.
Once a stubborn eighth-grader committed to basketball over volleyball, Fricano is now a star on a UNC team which opened the season as the ACC favorite. She’s leading the team with 22 blocks through six games.
She’s always wanted to play professionally, and she’s set on doing so after she graduates. She mentioned Team USA as a goal of hers. As someone with Italian heritage, she’d love to play overseas, too.
“I took Italian in college and now speak it fluently,” she said, “and it seems like a great fit.”
Simply put, Fricano is an interesting person. Her teammates, who call her Fric, rave about her on-court energy. When she saved a ball against LSU by kicking it, she tweeted the women’s soccer team and asked if there was an open roster spot.
When she retires, she plans to start a non-profit animal shelter. She’s already the proud owner of a chihuahua named Peanut. He has his own Instagram page, @peanutthepoopy, and 35 followers. Despite her allergy to dogs and cats, Fricano said she’s building up an immunity to them.
“He was the second best decision I’ve ever made,” she said, “the first being to transfer here.”
Her journey goes back to the day she listened to Stocker and decided to stick with volleyball. He’s one of many people Fricano credits for leading, along with Sagula and UNC’s fan base.
Stocker, Sagula and Uncle Bud have inspired her along the way. But it’s Fricano alone who has blocked out the obstacles — on and off the court — to find success.
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