By Jeremy Stafford - email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- Not too long ago, Phil Volz imagined he'd play soccer in college.
He had, after all, spent the greater portion of his high school career playing for his travel soccer team, Ashburn SC, and in a multitude of college showcases.
But a funny thing happened to Volz during his senior season at Stone Bridge: "I just got burned out playing 12 months out of the year," he said.
Volz never really took a break from soccer: There was always a sand tournament in Virginia Beach to play in, or showcase in New Jersey.
At one point Volz played on his high school team, his travel team, and spent the occasional weekend playing as a guest on a third team.
Until that point, Volz, now the starting cornerback at Shenandoah University, had only flirted with football.
In his freshman year at Stone Bridge, Volz went out for the Bulldogs' football team, but broke his wrist the day before the season opener. He made the team his senior season as a place kicker and saw the field often, but only on special teams.
When Volz graduated, he did so with the biting regret that he never truly caught the full experience of high school football.
So he decided to play in college: After a few years in community college, Volz e-mailed coaches with his 40-yard dash time, his bench press -- which he'd vastly improved having given up soccer -- and his athletic history.
Shenandoah coach Paul Barnes was the first to respond to Volz, and the former futbal player became a football player in the fall of 2009.
He began on Shenandoah's JV team and got along well enough during the first few practices. He was fast, that much was obvious, and the helmet-only conditioning drills were easy as pie for him.
Then came the full-pad practices; then came the tackle drills; then came Volz's attempt to tackle, his slip, the blow to his head, the concussion.
"That was kinda my welcome-to-football experience," Volz laughed.
Then his voice lowered, sank to a somber tone: "After that I kind of questioned myself."
Volz wasn't used to the contact, the violence, the ever-present threat of terrible injury.
But he stuck with it. When the scout defense was short on linemen, Volz, despite being a defensive back, volunteered to put his hand in the dirt. He learned to thrive on the contact, he learned to love the violence.
Volz eventually saw time playing on varsity, but as in high school, he was relegated to special teams duty.
Only it wasn't exactly like high school: Volz, one of the faster players on the team, was the wedge-buster.
This was his lone task on the field: Be the first player downfield on kickoffs; break up the wedge; if there is no wedge, make a tackle.
His special teams debut came in a 30-27 overtime loss to Christopher Newport, shortly after Volz had recovered from a deep tissue bruise in his quadriceps.
But there was still that pesky defensive playbook Volz had to memorize. He knew he had the physical attributes to compete for a starting job -- everyone seemed to know that -- but learning the nuances of playing defensive back at the college level was a major challenge.
"I was on square one," Volz said. [I was] below all the freshmen coming in.
"My little brother, who played high school ball, was giving me pointers and letting me know things to do as well."
By the time the season finale against Greensboro came around, SU assistant coach Tyrone Bell told Volz that, if he learned his plays, he'd play in Shenandoah's dime package.
And that's how Volz made his collegiate debut as a position player. Volz laughed: He's certain he managed a sack in that Greensboro game, though he wasn't credited with one.
In the winter, Volz solidified his knowledge of the defense; in the spring he ran track for SU.
"In spring ball he was just amazing," SU safety Larry Gibbs said. "It was so weird because the game, it got to him -- during the spring he was finally there.
"And even this summer during preseason, he was just awesome."
With the departure of a handful of cornerbacks heading into the 2010 season, Volz won a starting spot at cornerback. In Shenandoah's season opener against Catholic, Volz had four tackles, three of them solos. He broke up two passes and intercepted another.
"I think the thing I like about Phil is he's a very confident young man, but he's not cocky," Barnes said. "He's a very good athlete, but I think he can mature into a great athlete. He's just starting to learn how to use all his speed in football -- I'm sure he could do it in soccer, but now he's starting to know what he can do with football with his speed and his athletic ability.
"He's only going to get better, and I think he can be a very dominant corner for us."
In Shenandoah's 1 p.m. game at Bridgewater today, Volz's responsibilities are simple: Play smart, don't bite on the trick plays sure to come.
"They have a few trick plays they do, a lot of double-moves and things," Volz said. "So [I just need to] be patient on my coverages."