Playing with the younger girls in her club volleyball team in Orlando, Fla., often discouraged Deja Simpson.
She began competing in ninth grade at East River High School in Florida and was a junior when her doubts about playing began to surface.
“I just felt like I wasn’t good enough,” Simpson said. “I was on a club team with younger people, and they were doing good.”
She even contemplated quitting.
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But Simpson said her mother encouraged her to continue searching for a college volleyball program, and she discovered Shaw University.
“It was the closest one to home that I liked,” said Simpson, a rising junior outside hitter for the Bears. “I really like how everybody really knows each other and just how all the sports come together. They all support each other, and that’s cool.”
Day in and day out, Simpson proved herself wrong.
The 5-foot-7 outside hitter said she dazzled on the first day of Shaw volleyball practice as a freshman. She became the team’s co-captain as a sophomore last season, swatting down 113 kills through all 20 games.
Simpson’s beefy numbers resulted in probably one of the most important components to her reassurance: the Third Annual Costa Rica Volleyball Tour last month.
I was going to stop playing. I was going to give up. I thought I couldn’t go to college to play
Shaw OH Deja Simpson
Her statistics from sophomore year, which also included 143 digs and 35 service aces, attracted tournament officials, leaving little doubt concerning her skills.
“When I got selected, I was like, ‘What? Why did they pick me?’” Simpson recalled of the moment. “When it was around the time for me to leave, I started getting excited. I was nervous, because I was going … to Costa Rica to play.
“It was just overwhelming, really.”
During the nine-day tour, Simpson competed against teams from Central America under Urbana University coach Troy Haught. She also provided volleyball instruction to youth with disabilities and explored Costa Rica’s adventure, art and culture.
In a release from Shaw, volleyball coach DiShondra Goree said, “It’s very important to me that my girls expand their comfort zones by seeking opportunities to experience different things.”
For Simpson, her first time in Central America exceeded her coach’s desires.
Simpson said the visit helped illuminate the value of dedication in order to succeed in sports.
She played against unyielding defenders, who forced her to briskly improvise on the court.
“You had to keep trying, there’s no relaxing,” Simpson said. “I was like, ‘Really? I just hit the ball hard and they got it back up. Like, really?’”
She’ll use the daunting competition she faced in Costa Rica to prepare for her junior season. Her summer workouts have focused on jumping and hitting. Shaw opens its season Sept. 5 with a tri-meet at home against Coker and Cheyney (Penn.).
And Simpson is ready for her third season with the Bears.
Through the years of playing volleyball, she’s developed undeniable admiration for it. Simpson knows she must maintain her grades and that her critical nature on the floor is simply her style. It enables her to dial in on game days and improve overall.
Volleyball, she said, taught her that much about herself.
“I would be harder on myself than what my coach would be,” Simpson said. “She’d be like, ‘Deja, you have to get out of that.’ I don’t know why, but when I play, I like to get mad. My coach thinks it’s affecting me, but that’s just how I play. I have to get mad at myself. (It comes from) just wanting to be better. I know how I want to do it in my head.
“When I do it, if it doesn’t come out, I’m going to be really mad.”
Simpson, who studies athletic training, is open to a professional volleyball career after college.
For now, she’s just glad to still be playing.
“I don’t know why I was going to quit; that’s stupid,” she admitted. “Obviously, this is a good experience to go to college and play. It means a lot, because it makes me feel like I’m better than I think I am. In my head, I’m not that good. So when I get to things like (playing in the Costa Rica Volleyball Tour), it makes me feel, I guess, better about the way I play. I was going to stop playing. I was going to give up. I thought I couldn’t go to college to play.
“To be able to keep playing, that makes me feel good.”
Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan