Jennifer Laird, the youngest of six siblings, spent years sitting in the stands of the Mission Prep gym. She watched as, one by one, her brothers and sisters competed and graduated.
All she could do was wait.
“I remember sitting in the stands thinking about the moment that I get to go play,” Laird said Thursday afternoon, sitting in those same stands.
Laird, better known as “Boo” because of her early resemblance to the little girl from the movie Monsters Inc., had a lot to look up to. Every Laird before her was a successful three-sport athlete at Mission Prep, and brothers Patrick and Kevin went on to play football at Cal and Cornell, respectively.
She finally got her shot as a freshman, and her impact was immediate. Laird was named first-team all-league in volleyball that season and every year since.
“Freshman year, I didn’t think I was going to make varsity,” Laird said. “I just wasn’t very confident. Then I did, and I started. And I was actually one of the better players on varsity as a freshman, and that’s when it clicked. I was like, ‘Hey, I’m a good athlete.’ ”
Her 2016 volleyball senior season was perhaps her best. Laird led the PAC 8 in total kills (397) and ranked third overall in the CIF-Southern Section in hitting percentage (.416). Laird had 18 kills in a historic win over Arroyo Grande, a match that helped propel Mission Prep to a share of the league title. It was a career highlight for Laird.
For all her accomplishments this season, Laird was the easy choice for The Tribune’s 2016 County Girls Volleyball Player of the Year.
Suzi Laird, Jennifer’s mother, refused to help her daughter during the recruiting process. Sure, she drove her to practice and helped record video during tournaments, but the rest was up to “Boo.”
Laird would take the video footage, download it onto her computer, open iMovie and get to work. Then she would send her highlights in an email along with a few words to more than 30 college volleyball coaches. Even with her big stat numbers and explosive athleticism on display, at 5-foot-11, 140 pounds, getting recruited wasn’t as easy as bump, set, kill.
“I’m not the tallest, which was a huge challenge as a middle blocker trying to get recruited,” Laird said. “A lot of coaches take a look at my height and are just like, ‘No.’ ”
Eventually, the long hours of editing video and composing emails paid off halfway through her junior year. At a tournament in the spring, the floodgates opened. First Loyola Marymount called with an offer.
“I was smiling so much, and I shrieked,” Laird said. “When I hung up the phone, I didn’t believe it at first. Twenty minutes later, my coach told me that St. Mary’s wanted me too. It was just so much at once.”
Three hours later, Cal Poly came calling. Eventually, Laird chose St. Mary’s, a school located near her brother at Cal, and received a full scholarship to play both indoor and beach volleyball.
“It was kind of rewarding because I did it all myself,” Laird said. “That was my favorite part about the whole thing.”
During one practice this season, Mission Prep teammate Eleri Perryman was struggling with asthma during the team’s end-of-practice sprints. Head coach Jessie Holder said if Perryman didn’t finish, the whole team had to keep running. Laird stepped up.
“I’ll run for her,” she said.
It’s the kind of extra effort Holder, who is also Laird’s club volleyball coach, has always seen.
“She is determined to be unstoppable,” Holder said. “Anything less than that ... she continues to push herself, push herself. There is no part of her game that she is satisfied with.”
Being an undersized middle blocker, Laird said she had to work harder on the smaller aspects of her game.
“I really worked hard on being the quickest player out there. So I can be diving and play back row, which is rare for a middle blocker,” Laird said, “being an all-around player and also being quicker than the middle on the other team.”
It continues even though Laird has started basketball season. For the past two seasons, after each basketball practice, Laird joins her club volleyball team for practice until 9:30 p.m. On weekends, she heads to Pismo Beach to train on the sand courts.
“I see Patrick (Laird) doing insane things to prepare, and I see how proud my parents are of him. And so I just kind of want that feeling,” she said.
Volleyball isn’t the only thing on Laird’s future agenda.
When she finished reading Sold, a 2006 novel by Patricia McCormick about a teen girl from Nepal sold into sexual slavery, she felt a calling of sorts.
“Right after I read that book, I was like, ‘Wow, I should really take a year (after college) and maybe travel and do Doctors Without Borders or something like that,’ ” Laird said.
Just like her father, Michael, a local orthopedic surgeon, and her sister, Deirdre, a nurse in Seattle who worked with Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization, in Peru, she sees herself pursing a career in the medical field. Laird, who carries a 4.53 GPA, plans to major in biology at St. Mary’s.
She knows balancing the long hours of volleyball practices and lab work will be a challenge in college, but in a way she has been preparing for her next step ever since she first watched her oldest sister, Michaela, hitting aces on the volleyball court.
The Tribune 2016 All-County Girls Volleyball Team
Player of the Year: Jennifer Laird, Mission Prep, Sr.
Kiara Gable, Paso Robles, Sr.
Taylor Degnan, Atascadero, Sr.
Hannah McRoy, Templeton, Sr.
Sabina Selzer, Arroyo Grande, Jr.
Gabrielle Morrison, Paso Robles, Sr.
Macie Lachemann, Arroyo Grande, Jr.
Jeanine Herzoff, Mission Prep, Sr.
Gigi Stoothoff, Coast Union, Sr.
Hope Goodall, Nipomo, Sr.
Molly Eppright, San Luis Obispo, Soph.
Madison Boncich, Mission Prep, Sr.
Lexi Beaman, Morro Bay, Sr.
Eleri Perryman, Mission Prep, Sr.
Cheyenne Rice, Templeton, Soph.
Editor’s Note: The selections for the All-County teams were made by The Tribune sports staff based on season-long in-person and video observations, conversations with coaches and statistical analysis.