Florida star freshman Thayer Hall makes first visit to USC

It’s not often in sports that the visiting team gets to enjoy homecoming.

That was the case on Friday night, though, as former Dorman volleyball All-American Thayer Hall played her first collegiate game in the state as the University of Florida visited South Carolina.

Dozens of Hall’s friends and family — and a sold-out crowd — watched the No. 11 Gators win a 3-2 thriller over the Gamecocks. Hall said she tried not to treat the match any differently than any other, but she was definitely excited to be home.

“(Gators coach Mary Wise) sat me down before serve and pass yesterday morning and asked me to treat it just like any other match,” Hall said. “It shouldn’t be a performance contest trying to impress the people who came to see me.”

That wasn’t necessary. Hall impressed those people long ago.

One fan who traveled to take in the game was especially happy. Maria Bates’ team got the win. Bates, a Florida native, went to school at UF before moving to Spartanburg 30 years ago. Her husband, recreation director at Roebuck Baptist Church, became acquainted with the Hall family through Upward sports.

“There are a couple of different ties there,” Bates said. “I was thrilled when Thayer signed with Florida. I’m a sports junkie, and I’ve seen her games on TV, but (Friday) was the first time I got to see her live in orange and blue. It was great.”

Hall lived up to her All-American billing and her hot collegiate start, recording 16 kills and an ace for the Gators. She said the game felt like an offensive resurgence.

“I’ve been in an offensive slump lately,” she said. “So many parts of my game are going so well, but not everything can be perfect. Over the past few matches I’ve learned to embrace that and roll with it. Last night was the best our offense has connected and we were on a roll. I felt like I played like Thayer Hall last night, and it felt so good to break through at home. In fact, I think home is just what I needed to get through it.”

Angie Thompson, one of Hall’s first coaches, saw a spark of the talent to come from the very beginning.

“I remember I tried to get her to play in the fourth grade and her mom wouldn’t let her,” Thompson laughed. “Even then, just looking at her, just watching her walk, you could tell she could be special. When she was doing Kids Power, our very beginner stuff, she came back to help me teach it when she was in fifth or sixth grade. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Even Thompson, though, is surprised at the impact Hall has had so quickly in college.

“I hate to say it, but I am,” she said. “I knew she was awesome, winning every award, and I thought she would be good. But to be one of the best so quickly, and she’s one of the best among the best. Florida has great players. It might be a little surprising that she’s this good her freshman year. For her to play six rotations, a big kid who’s playing on the back row like she is, that’s amazing.”

Hall isn’t just playing well, she’s also helping to lead the team. She doesn’t shrink away from that role, something Bates noticed when watching.

“The team has definitely accepted her,” she said. “She doesn’t seem like a freshman. She looks to have earned that respect. They’ve all achieved at a certain level or they wouldn’t be there. I think Thayer – whether it’s the Gatorade Player of the Year or how she carries herself — has had a seamless transition. They look to her. I can’t imagine what that will look like four years from now.”

Thompson attributes that to Hall’s humility.

“She’s not at all arrogant, and that shows up when you see her out there,” she said. “Her character, her work ethic, that’s who she is. With her being a freshman and all the accolades she’s gathered, she could have a completely different outlook, and she just doesn’t.”

Friday night, Hall’s outlook was simple. She was home. She got to see several friends from USC on Thursday, and several more drove down from Clemson. Club coaches, teachers, friends and family all turned out to welcome her home.

“It was a sold-out crowd,” she said. “Not a seat in the gym. But every single one of those faces, and so many more that I could list but the list would never end, found a way to see the Gators last night. It’s almost overwhelming to sit back and reflect on it.”

It was overwhelming to Hall, but not until the game was over.

“As I stepped out when they announced my name in the lineup and the gym roared, I didn’t know if I’d be able to hold it in,” she said. “But I did, until the end of the match. Walking back out after our cool-down I was immediately bombarded with our (Dorman) JV players and old Upward teammates, followed by my best friends that drove all the way from Clemson and met up with the ones from USC. Then my old club coaches and their kids that I hold so dear to my heart. And finally, my family. It’s been so hard not being able to see my older brother for so long just because our schedules conflict so much. The tears didn’t hit until then, but at that point I couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“I couldn’t help but wonder if all of those friends and family that were my biggest fans would still be waiting for me, but just as they promised, they were, and it made it that much harder to leave South Carolina again.”