Perennial volleyball powerhouse Penn State is in town this weekend for the Active Ankle Challenge, hosted by the University of Louisville. Louisville native Deja McClendon, one of Penn State’s star players, is a 2010 graduate of duPont Manual High School. Her senior year she was named Miss Volleyball Kentucky and Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year. Thursday night, the Crimsons retired her no. 8 jersey, cementing Deja’s legacy as one of the greatest athletes to ever come out the city of Louisville. McClendon was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to sit down with Louisville.com and talk volleyball, national championships, future goals, and also do a little reminiscing.
Louisville.com: So, you were born in Cincinnati but raised in Louisville. When and why did you move here?
Deja McClendon: We moved here because my dad got a job here. I honestly can’t remember (the move). All I can remember is from Louisville. I started school here and everything, so I’m not really sure when we moved.
Lou.com: Were either of your parents athletes?
DM: Yeah, my dad actually played basketball at the University of Cincinnati.
(Side note: I didn’t’ ask—but should’ve—but Deja’s father, Roger, is of Cincinnati lore. He scored 1,789 points in his career, second only to the great Oscar Robertson. Roger scored a career-high 35 points Jan. 20, 1986 to lead Cincinnati’s comeback from a 17-point second half deficit to beat, you guessed it, the Louisville Cardinals 84-82.)
Lou.com: When did you start playing volleyball?
DM: I started playing when I was about 14. My best friend was playing and I just wanted to hang out with her. She told me I should try out and I started playing on my middle school team (at Kentucky Country Day). A club director (Ron Kordes) came to one of my games and told me I should come try out for the KIVA (Kentucky-Indiana Volleyball Academy) team. I started playing club then and it all goes from there.
Lou.com: What was the first award you ever won?
DM: Probably in middle school; we had a serving competition that I won. I think that’s the first award—and we won candy so it wasn’t anything big.
Lou.com: Did you play any other sports:
DM: I played soccer when I was young and played tennis all the way up until high school. I ended up having to quit tennis because it was conflicting too much with volleyball.
Lou.com: Go back to the day you got your acceptance letter from Manual. What kind of feeling was that like?
DM: Getting into Manual was the first thing I ever really, really tried hard for on my own. It’s a pretty tough process. You have to write an essay and I remember writing and re-writing and editing my essay over and over because I really wanted to get it in. Getting the acceptance letter was just amazing.
Lou.com: In your time at Manual, you won a lot of awards. What did you to keep your edge and pushing to get better?
DM: Public schools in this area have never been able to compete with private schools like Assumption and Mercy; that in itself was all the motivation me and my teammates needed. We though to ourselves, “We can do this, we can build this team up, we can get girls to come here and play,” and that was our motivation every day.
Lou.com: Being recruited by a school with as much volleyball tradition as Penn State, was it ultimately an easy decision to decide to go there?
DM: The recruiting process is very difficult. You get a lot of people saying they’re interested and pointing at new facilities and locker rooms and things like that; but for me, it never really was about that. It was mostly about the coaches and the girls. I wanted to be the best volleyball player I could be coming out of college and I don’t think there’s a better coach out there than Russ Rose (Penn State’s head coach). All the girls here are open, outgoing, and fun. That’s what I love about the girls here.
Lou.com: Ever get homesick?
DM: I like being out on my own and I was glad to get that time on my own, but I do miss my brother and sister. Mostly, I just miss my family.
(Side note: Both Deja’s brother, Marquis, and sister, Maya, currently attend Manual)
Lou.com: Your freshman year you guys won the National Championship. What kind of feeling did you get raising the trophy?
DM: I learned so much in such a short time my freshman year; I had a lot of people giving me feedback and I was just trying to soak it all in. All the girls on the court had so much experience and there was so much to learn, I wish I could get that time back to learn more.
Raising the trophy was the best feeling I’ve ever felt to this day. It’s just seeing something you’ve worked hard for everyday come to life. It’s just a feeling of pure joy; you dream about it, sweated for it, cried and done everything you could to get it and it finally happens. It’s just amazing.
(Side note: Deja won Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament her freshman year. When asked about it, naturally, she gave all the credit to her teammates.)
Lou.com: You’re an upperclassman now, so you’re obviously taking on a new leadership role. What are you taking on this year that you haven’t in the past?
DM: Coach Rose expects a lot out of you regardless of what year you are. As upperclassman, our job is to pick up the freshmen and teach them what’s going on. At times, we have to complement each other; sometimes we may not have a good day on the court, but we have to pick each other up and keep everybody’s confidence up.
Lou.com: What’s the ultimate goal for you as a volleyball player?
DM: I’ve never really thought that far. I’ve really always tried to be the best player I can be and just see where that takes me. I would love to travel and see the world; if volleyball can help me do that, it would be a dream come true.
Lou.com: Having your jersey retired by Manual kind of cements your legacy in this city; Everyone who comes in the gym is always going to see your name and your number. How special is that?
DM: It’s one of the most amazing feelings I’ve had. I can remember stepping into the gym for the first time and being so excited to play there. To have my jersey on the wall and have other girls come in and think, “Hey, someday that could be me,” it makes me so proud. I love representing Louisville and duPont Manual.
Lou.com: What’s the biggest piece of advice you could give a young girl that might see you on TV and want to become as great a volleyball player as yourself?
DM: Just keep playing. A lot of people give up early; you’re not always going to be the best and it’s not always going to be fun. You have to work at it, keep playing, and have a love for the game. If you do that, you’re going to go really far.