Finally healthy, Uhart excited to return to Long Beach State
Former Lansing standout takes aim at national title
Leavenworth native Wayne Simien may be the one of the biggest names in basketball to ever come out of Kansas. Natalie Uhart knows exactly how Simien feels.
Uhart, a 2003 Lansing High graduate, is one of the top volleyball players in Kansas history. She'll be a junior this fall at Long Beach State University. The 49ers boast arguably the most dominant college volleyball program in NCAA history, having won five national titles - the most recent being 1998. They were the national runner-up in 2001.
Given that level of success, volleyball in California is similar to basketball in Kansas. Teams are worshiped. Players are celebrities.
"You go to the beach and people recognize you," Uhart said. "They know who you are. It's crazy. Out here volleyball is getting more popular, but out there it's a completely different world."
The popularity of volleyball in California even overwhelmed Lansing High coach Julie Slater when she and her husband, Rick, flew out last year to watch Uhart play in a tournament.
"There's one beach out there where there were just courts and courts and courts of volleyball," she said. "I guess that's just what they do out there."
For Uhart, Long Beach was volleyball heaven. In addition to playing in a state where fans are rabid about her sport, she also got to play in one of the top conferences against some of the nation's best competition.
"It's so much fun," she said of her college experience. "I love living there, but I sacrifice a lot to be out there. My days are from six in the morning until midnight. It's hard work."
Uhart put in plenty of hard work during her first two years as a 49er. Most of that work came in the training room.
After earning back-to-back Gatorade Kansas Player of the Year honors and helping Lansing with the 2002 state championship, she had a breakthrough freshman campaign at Long Beach State. During her first year she played in 94 games and averaged 1.91 kills per game and a team-high 1.04 blocks per game. Her .325 attack percentage also was a team best. She made such an impact that she earned Big West Conference All-Freshman Team honors.
She began her sophomore season with lofty expectations, but the year took a turn for the worse quickly.
"I probably shouldn't have played at all that season," she added. "(The knee) kept getting worse and worse, but we didn't have any subs so I had to play."
Eventually she ruptured her patellar tendon, which helps the knee move smoothly from the straight to bent position. The injury ended her season prematurely. She had reconstructive kneecap surgery and was forced to sit out for eight months. With Uhart out of the lineup, the 49ers lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and finished the season with a 24-7 record.
Now that she finally is healthy, Uhart said she had high expectations for her final two seasons at Long Beach State. The 49ers are ranked No. 24 in the preseason American Volleyball Coaches' Associa-tion and are among the favorites to win the Big West title this year.
"I'm expecting a lot," Uhart said of the upcoming season. "The past two years we've been rebuilding, but we're maturing and our technique is getting better. If the season goes the way we want it to go and the way it should go, we can be a top-four team. I'm planning on winning a national championship with my team, either this year or next year."