At 12, Carly Peck remembers sitting in the stands of the O'Connell Center — where the University of Florida plays — with her club volleyball team watching the Gators compete.
At that age, she couldn't imagine hitting the ball as hard as college players or playing that competitively, but seven years later, Peck has a defined role as a sophomore on the North Carolina volleyball team and is poised to make a major contribution this season.
Peck's growth from a self-proclaimed "skinny" 12-year-old to a leader for UNC volleyball was driven by an underdog mentality and guidance from a family history of athletic success.
A family tradition
Peck learned to compete from looking up to her dad and aunt, both collegiate basketball coaches. Even though they coached a different sport on the court, they taught her what it meant to be a competitor.
Reflecting on her first experience with competitive volleyball, Peck remembered how intimidating it was to try out. She had just moved to Gainesville, Florida, and the level of volleyball was certainly a step up from the recreational league she had played at previously.
She remembered getting in the car after the first day of try outs wanting to quit. Overwhelmed by the other girls' talent level and frustrated by the intricacies of volleyball she'd yet to understand, her aunt, Carolyn Peck, bribed her into attending the second day of tryouts with the promise of massages.
"My aunt was the one who talked to me," Peck said, "and was like, 'you know we don't quit first of all, we finish everything we start.'"
To this day the two haven't gone to get massages, but Peck received a greater gift: the beginning of a volleyball career that would take her to the collegiate level. Her aunt's motivation encouraged her to return to tryouts, where she made the team.
"I remember not being able to believe it," Peck said. "Thinking they must have made a typo or an error, like they didn't mean to put my name."
Volleyball also played a defining role in her relationship with her dad, Michael Peck, who quit collegiate basketball coaching, in part to support his daughter's blossoming career.
For Peck, his career transition was a visible commitment to supporting her. She was initially anxious that he would regret the sacrifice, but unbeknownst to her, he had been making personal sacrifices for her success from day one.
"I didn't find this out until the day after I committed to UNC, my mom and I were in the car driving and she started to tear up," Peck said. "She told me that my dad, in order for me to play on that first club team, he had sold his favorite watch that he had gotten when one of his teams went and played in Europe. He had to sell it in order to pay for me to play."
That sacrifice and love that her dad brought to the game of volleyball was a motivator for Peck's success. The bond that they share over the game makes her dad her favorite spectator.
"I know how much he loves volleyball and when I was younger, he was the one who I just always wanted to watch me play," she said. "And whenever he was there, all I could think about was him watching and I wanted to make him proud."
Making that initial club team was only step one of an uphill battle for Peck. Even though her team was young, many girls had years of experience competing at a high level.
In the beginning, she remembers playing the game with a lot of hesitation, anxious that she would be the one to make a mistake or let her team down.
"Initially, I hated that feeling of being such an underdog," Peck said.
But slowly, she transformed that underdog mentality into a unique motivator. For her, winning and losing was never a measure of success. Instead, she competed against herself, measuring her personal growth in the game.
"I think that apprehension and that nervousness is what never made us feel satisfied or complacent," Peck said.
Even now — competing at the collegiate level — Peck carries that underdog mentality with her. As a first-year, she came into UNC battling a back injury, unsure of her skills after taking time off from the game to heal. Working back from injury, Peck knew she owed it to herself after the years of hard work and sacrifice to become a dominant player once again.
UNC head coach Joe Sagula recognized her hard work. He noticed Peck didn't take days off as she returned to her full potential and ultimately was rewarded Most Improved Player for the Tar Heels last season.
"She doesn't like the attention, so she thrives in that underdog role," Sagula said. "I think it motivates her to do well. Some people like that extra incentive, and I think that's what helps her push herself each day."
Peck's commitment to self-improvement last season eventually culminated in a dominant performance from her at the end of a close match against Florida State. Her play down the stretch — including eight errorless kills — helped lead UNC to a victory over the Seminoles.
"Nobody on my team was kind of playing well," Peck's teammate Destiny Cox said. "I think as a team collectively we were definitely struggling, but in the fifth set, I don't know what sparked in Carly, but she literally turned into this monster."
Peck remembers riding a high from the game through the week, excitedly reflecting on her standout performance in class, but her success wasn't a surprise to anyone else. Her teammates and coaches had seen her continuous dedication to the game and watched her ability to stay centered in key moments. After all, she had been dealing with the pressure since club volleyball.
"In those pressure moments, we know that Carly is going to come through," Cox said. "... She's capable of taking anyone and competing with anyone."
In reflecting on Peck's first year in Chapel Hill, Sagula, while impressed with her growth as a player, was most inspired by her character and leadership off the court.
"Some people in sports, they are going to be unbelievable athletes, they're going to be great," Sagula said. "Some people on your team, they're just the best teammates, they might not be as talented as your star player. Carly possesses those two things, she possesses the character and the humility, and she possesses the athleticism to be one of your most talented athletes."
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