Gabrielle Woodruff is right at home on the volleyball court.
In fact, it’s become her second home.
The St. Stephen’s senior middle hitter grew up on the volleyball court — quite literally — watching her mom, Kim Kelly, coach the Cardinal Mooney High volleyball team.
Kelly, who played volleyball alongside her twin sister, Kris, at the University of Montana, spent six years coaching the Lady Cougars from 1989 to 1995, and it was inside the Cardinal Mooney gymnasium that Woodruff got her first taste of volleyball action.
Before she could walk, Woodruff, a Siesta Key resident, would spend countless hours scooting around the court in her walker.
That’s also where Woodruff donned her first volleyball uniform — a Cardinal Mooney T-shirt — and first connected with the sport, which would eventually develop into a lifelong passion.
“I’ve grown up around it and always loved it,” Woodruff says of volleyball.
Woodruff participated in after-school volleyball camps at St. Stephen’s before joining her first official club volleyball team 12 years ago.
Kelly, who resigned from her position at Cardinal Mooney in 1995 to focus on raising Woodruff and her younger sister, Kassandra, coached Woodruff for two years while she played for Manatee Area Volleyball.
“It was good,” Woodruff says of having her mom for a coach. “You got to be the cool kid whose mom was the coach.”
Although Kelly only officially coached her daughter for two years, Woodruff admits her mom is still a coach. Kelly is always courtside cheering on her daughters while also feeding them pointers along the way.
“She always reminds me to stay positive and to make sure it remains fun,” Woodruff says. “I can be hard on myself, and she always says don’t get down on yourself and if you are, don’t let it show.
“It takes a lot of reading in volleyball and, if you listen, she is helpful,” Woodruff says.
“It’s hard to differentiate where to stop coaching and just be a parent,” Kelly says. “That’s one of the hardest dividing lines I’ve ever faced, and I’ll admit I’m not very good at it.”
Woodruff joined the St. Stephen’s volleyball team in seventh grade and played on the Lady Falcons varsity squad for the past four years, helping lead St. Stephen’s to district championships her sophomore and senior seasons.
This year Woodruff led the Lady Falcons, who tied a school record for most regular season wins, to a 3-0 victory over The Out-of-Door Academy in the Class 3A-District 10 championship Oct. 25, to advance to the regional quarterfinals Oct. 31, for the fourth consecutive season.
“It was a big deal,” Woodruff says of winning the district title. “Last year we were the runner-up, so we were all fired up and focused on winning. Only one of the six of us seniors is going on to play, so we were focused on getting the title the last time we were together on the court.”
Woodruff played her final match in a St. Stephen’s uniform Oct. 31, when the host Lady Falcons fell to Calvary Christian 3-2 in the regional quarterfinals.
“I’m going to miss being with this team,” Woodruff says. “We’ve all played together for so long. We’re all friends and know each other really well. I’m definitely going to miss the competition aspect as well.”
Woodruff plans to play club or intramural volleyball in college next year, but will focus on academics rather than playing collegiate volleyball.
“It’s been so constant in my life for as long as I can remember,” Woodruff says. “It’ll be different having to take it down a couple of notches. Hitting and blocking and feeling that adrenaline rush though — you miss that.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].