Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat

Rachel Dunlap, a 2011 Summerville graduate, wrapped up her junior year at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn., this spring.

In 2013, the 6-foot middle blocker enjoyed a breakout volleyball season. Dunlap earned second-team All-Northeast Conference honors after leading the league in blocks. Her 1.54 blocks per set was the fourth best in the nation for all of Division I.

Dunlap also broke the single-season school record for most blocks with 163, and was named NEC Defensive Player of the Week five times. She helped the Blue Devils reach the NEC Championship match, but the team fell short to LIU Brooklyn.

Central Connecticut finished its season with a 21-9 record.

The 21-year-old, back home for a month vacation, assisted with on-court instruction during last week's Sonora Wildcat youth volleyball camp at Bud Castle Gym.

Dunlap spoke withUnion Democrat sports reporter Vongni Yangafter the camp last Thursday to share her volleyball experience, and what her goals are for her final season at Central Connecticut, where she will serve as a senior team captain in 2014.

UD: What's it like to be able to give back and share your experience and love for the game with these kids?

RD: I knew that volleyball was going to be in my life for a very long time, so sharing that passion and that love for the game is something I want to pursue for the rest of my life. I was a big fish in a small pond here. I learned that coming back and giving back to the community is something that's really special.

UD: What can these girls learn from a summer camp like this one?

RD: Any sport that you play, you need to play year round. The competition is getting tougher and tougher, so I love coming back and offering what I can, to help them be better for the future.

UD: What advice would you give to girls who have aspirations of becoming a Division I player?

RD: You have to work hard. It's not easy. You're going to have to travel a lot and go play against other girls that are better than you. It can be discouraging at times, but you really need to branch out if you're here to be a Division I athlete.

UD: Do you enjoy being back in Tuolumne County?

RD: I appreciate it a lot more than I did when I lived here originally. I used to think, 'Oh Sonora, there's nothing to do here.' But every time I come back, I like it just that much more. I'm only home once every sixth months for about a month, and it's perfect. I get to soak it all in and then I get to go back to the east coast then I miss it. Just when I miss it, it's time to come back again. It's perfect.

UD: Do you ever get homesick when you're back east?

RD: Of course I do. When I'm in season, it's not as hard. I'm too busy. I have too much school. I have too much volleyball. But still, would I love if my parents could see more of my games instead of just on the internet? Absolutely. It's hard. It gets harder every time I leave.

UD: How did your junior season go at Central Connecticut?

RD: I had a really good junior year. I was ranked fourth in the nation for blocking and stacked up against girls from Penn State and Stanford, people that won national championships. That was a really big honor for me. I really feel like I found my groove on our team and blossomed. I'm really looking forward to my last year.

UD: Statistically speaking, you were one of the best middle blockers in the nation, what type of commitment does it take to develop into that type of player?

RD: I have always been told that I'm pretty physical and I'm a great athlete, but it was really time for me to mentally lock in and know that I am a good player. It's time for me to step up.

UD: How much have you grown as a player since your days at Summerville?

RD: Mentally has been my biggest challenge. I was a big fish in a small pond and thinking I was pretty good. Once you reach out to the big world, there's a lot of better and bigger girls out there. It really took me a little bit to mentally commit and be, 'OK, you have to work so much harder than you ever thought you ever did before.' That's where I've grown the most. My mental capacity to play the game, and my volleyball IQ has jumped up. Now, I'm lifting weights with the team. I'm more physically fit than I have ever been before.

UD: What drove you to become a Division I player?

RD: I told my mom in sixth grade I wanted to be a Division I athlete. I just wasn't sure what sport yet. So I had the competitive drive since I was at a young age. Growing up in the family I had, everybody pushed me to be the best that I could be, and I just decided that this is what I wanted at a young age, and I went and earned it.

UD: Can you describe the level of play as a Division I volleyball player?

RD: It's intense. There's no stopping. Trying to juggle it with school is tough, but once you get in the groove, you figure it out. Lifting weights and conditioning is probably the biggest wake up call for me. I knew volleyball was going to be hard, but I didn't know I had to put in the time to condition until I was dead basically. Lifting weights until I'm lifting as much weights as the football team. You don't realize that those little things make you so much better, and they're going to take just as much time as volleyball.

UD: What are you doing this summer to help you prepare for your final season?

RD: We have to go backJune 30to start training. That's when everybody, all my teammates from across the country, come back together and we start training. That's a really big step for us to train so early. The season doesn't start until the end of August, so being able to come together as a team: lift weights, condition, and getting a couple of practices in is really, really beneficial to our season.

UD: Heading into your senior year, will you be taking more of a leadership role?

RD: I was elected as the senior captain this year. I was elected in the spring, so I have been transitioning into that role. I'm really looking forward to it.

UD: You were a second-team All-NEC selection, what's it like to be recognized for your play by conference coaches?

RD: It's very humbling. It's very, very rewarding. I thought I worked hard all season and the awards started to show it. That capped it at the end of the season when we went to the NEC Championships. I was recognized as all-conference. That was a big confidence boost.

UD: Is it bittersweet that you will be playing your final year of volleyball?

RD: I wish I can play forever. It's hard for me to accept, but this is my last year. I'm going to go out with a bang. What do I have to lose?