Veteran defensive specialist contributes with selfless play

Junior defender Sarah Ann Tillery prepares to hit the ball in a Halloween game against Union. Tillery is the veteran leader of the volleyball defense.

The UNA volleyball team secured a seed in the Gulf South Conference tournament and has an opportunity to carry its regular season success into the postseason.

While the offensive players — the middle and outside hitters — receive a lot of attention for their contributions, a big reason for UNA’s success this season is the defense. The veteran leader of the defense is junior defensive specialist Sarah Ann Tillery.

“I don’t feel that any of our defensive players get the notoriety they deserve,” said head coach Stephanie Radecki. “(Tillery) always gives her best for her team and our coaching staff. She is an outstanding student-athlete.”

Tillery, who has started 21 of UNA’s 27 matches, does not rack up a ton of spectacular stats. However, she is one of the most consistent components on a team that allows the fewest opponent kills per set in the conference.

Tillery does not get a lot of attention for her play, but she said team accomplishments are more important to her than personal accolades.

“I think when you’re younger, everyone wants to be a hitter,” Tillery said. “Although you don’t get as much attention as a defensive player, I think when the team does well as a whole, that’s the most rewarding part.”

Another intangible Radecki values in Tillery is her leadership ability. Radecki said Tillery does not need to speak out to be a great leader.

“Sarah Ann is very quiet,” Radecki said. “She has become more vocal as she has gotten older, but is still hesitant to speak up when she knows she should. However, she is one of the best leaders by example we have.”

She may not be the most animated person on the floor, but Tillery’s coaches and players like the humor she brings to the locker room.

“When you least expect it, (Tillery) comes up with some great lines and moments of laughter for our team,” Radecki said. “A player that can do that, on top of working hard 100 percent of the time, is an asset to any team.”

Radecki recruited Tillery out of Grissom High School as an outside hitter. Since arriving at UNA, Tillery made the transition to a defensive specialist.

Tillery said her decision to play for UNA was one of her best.

“I love (UNA’s) campus and just everything about it,” she said. “I think it was a good decision to get away from home but to still be close enough to where my family could come down and watch me play.”

Tillery’s positive energy brings a momentum wave to her team, said teammate and sophmore hitter Lexie Bradley.

“(Tillery) always stays positive, which really helps us in tough situations,” Bradley said. “She is a huge asset to us on the right side of the court.”

As one of the team’s spikers, Bradley said Tillery’s strong suit is setting up her and her teammates with a hittable pass off the opponent’s serve.

“One of her strengths is her serve receive,” Bradley said. “When she gives us a great pass, it helps us get a kill.”

Off the court, Tillery said she loves to shop but also takes advantage of all the nature areas in the Shoals.

“(The team) always goes hiking on the trails,” she said. “That’s another thing about UNA I like – there are a lot of trails around here. We go kayaking sometimes. I like to be outside whenever I’m not in the gym.”

UNA accepted Tillery into the nursing program. She will start in the spring. Tillery said she wants to continue her education after her career at UNA.

“There’s a lot of nurse specialty schools, and there’s a few that I’ve been interested in,” she said. “Hopefully, once I start in the (nursing) program, I’ll get a better understanding of what specialty I want to go into.”

Tillery and her teammates play two final home games Nov. 6 and 7 before finishing the regular season with two matches on the road.