By Bill Sheehan
Julia Crawford, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter for the Cal State Fullerton women's volleyball team, frequently faces off against front-line opponents well over 6 feet. It's a tall order for the freshman from Lakewood, but she embraces the challenge.
Athletic and competitive genes run deep in her family. Her father, Larry, was a four-time All-Canadian Football League All-Star and won a Grey Cup – the CFL's Super Bowl -- as a defensive back with the BC Lions. Her mother, Beth, was a high school standout in volleyball, basketball and track and field. Her siblings also have made their mark in sports – sister Eliza, 27, played infield for four years on Fullerton's softball team and brother John Paul, 24, is a shortstop for the Seattle Mariners.
"Julia hates to lose," said Crawford's mother, Beth. "I think everyone in our family does. "Everything was a competition. When our kids were growing up, it was always 'Who could hit the Whiffle Ball the farthest?' or 'Who could finish their sandwich first?'
"That competition has helped Julia. She was always tired of hearing how good her siblings were. She wanted to make a name for herself."
Every member of the Crawford family has excelled in competitive sports. From left, John Paul, Eliza, Beth, Julia and Larry.
The 18-year-old has done just that. At Lakewood High, Crawford was a two-time All-Moore League selection and helped propel her team to a league title and two co-championships. As a first-year Titan, she has started all 15 games this season. A hard hitter with a strong vertical leap, she has a team-leading 209 kills and is second in digs with 162.
"Growing up, I definitely had some benchmarks that I had to reach. Everyone expected me to be an athlete and keep up with my siblings," she said. "If you ask me who was the best athlete out of the three of us, I would say it was me."
She won't get any argument from Titans volleyball head coach Ashley Preston. "I call her the 'Silent Assassin.' Julie is true six-rotation outside hitter and a foundational player. She is a great hitter with good passing and defensive skills. She is really doing well as a freshman carrying the load," said Preston, who is in her fifth year at Fullerton.
The Titans, who are 8-7 overall and 0-4 in the Big West, nearly upset No. 11-ranked Hawaii last weekend in Honolulu, losing in a thrilling five-set match. Fullerton again will try again to notch its first conference victory in a match Saturday at UC Irvine. The game begins at 7 p.m.
Titans 'can build' on 5-set loss at Hawaii
"We played one of our best games at Hawaii," said Crawford. "We were very connected and executed our game plan well. Our team can build on this effort. We proved we could compete against a high-ranked team."
Her Titans career got off to an auspicious start. She became an instant starter as the team posted a pre-conference record of 8-3. Crawford was named to the All-Tournament Team at both the Idaho Classic in Moscow, Idaho, and the Wildcat Classic in Abilene, Texas.
In a match against Prairie View A&M at the Wildcat Classic, she had a season-high 27 kills to go along with 16 digs. "I wasn't expected to be swinging and scoring that much," Crawford said. "I was doing everything my coaches told me to do, and I had a successful outcome."
She said her transition to college life off the court was a little hectic at times. "It's been going well, but it was crazy at the beginning. During the first weeks of school, we were always traveling on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so I was emailing my professors and staying on task. My teammates have helped me with everything."
Julia Crawford is an undeclared major at Cal State Fullerton. She may focus on studying kinesiology. Credit: Photo by Bill Sheehan
Nicky Cannon, Titans assistant coach who oversees outside hitters, said Crawford is a unique talent. "She has to work harder because she is smaller than most Division 1 hitters. I'm always amazed with all that jump and swing in that body of hers. I had seen her while scouting in my prior job, and I was super-excited to get to coach Julia and help her reach her potential at Fullerton."
"Coach Preston likes to get a little creative running plays. We mix it up a bit to put Julia in a position to take advantage of her athleticism. She is active in the front row, but she is productive and focused in the back row as well and is a really skilled passer."
Crawford 'knows where to put the ball,' teammate says
Felicia Marshall, the Titans' other starting outside hitter, said Crawford has given the team a boost. "She definitely scores a lot and is a very consistent player, which is helpful to our team," said Marshall, a senior from Clinton, Utah. "Julia is a very smart player. She realizes what she is up against and knows where to put the ball. And she always has a smile on her face, regardless of the situation."
Crawford grew up playing soccer, softball and basketball but said she wasn't a big fan of those sports. "Then when I was 12, I played volleyball, and it stuck." She initially joined the Long Beach-based New Wave Volleyball Club. Two years later, she switched to Goldenwest Volleyball Club in Anaheim, where she played until turning 18.
Crawford joined the New Wave Volleyball Club in Long Beach after taking up volleyball at age 12.
Isaac Owens, the longtime girls' volleyball coach at Esperanza High School in Anaheim and a cofounder of Goldenwest, coached Crawford for her final three years on the club. "Julia is a phenomenal athlete who has a very high volleyball IQ. She works extremely hard and makes the game look easy," said Owens. "She has great ball control, passing and defense. She can take a crappy set and make something of it."
Owens said one of Crawford's main strengths is her loyalty. "In the recruiting process, several Division 1 programs showed interest off and on. Fullerton never stopped recruiting her and she stuck with the school. That loyalty speaks volumes. And she was very loyal to me and Goldenwest," he said.
"It was a pleasure to have coached her. And Ashley is extremely lucky to have her."
Former rivals now play side-by-side for Titans
Elizabeth Schuster, a fellow Titans freshman, played at Long Beach Poly, an arch-rival of Crawford's Lakewood High. Schuster said that although they faced off for years, they didn't really know each other. "Once I found out that she had committed to Fullerton too, we finally met. This summer as training started, she was shy at first. She got more comfortable, and now she will start joking with us all the time."
Schuster, a backup setter who has been slowed by a knee injury this season, said Crawford's relatively small size hasn't hampered her game. "I'd like to believe that height doesn't matter. If she can get up with the six-footers with her vertical lift, she can compete with them."
Crawford's parents first met when Larry was doing a tryout with the San Diego Chargers and Beth was studying nursing at San Diego State. Larry, a Florida native who attended Iowa State, is currently coaching at Valley Christian School in Cerritos. Beth, who grew up in La Crescenta, is a registered nurse at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach.
Eliza, Crawford's sister, is the softball coordinator for Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy and is relocating next week from New Orleans to Southern California. Her brother, known as J.P., just bought a house in Arizona where he will live during baseball's off-season and spring training.
Crawford is living on campus in the dormitories. She is an undeclared major but may focus on kinesiology. "Being a trainer would be a rewarding job."
At Lakewood High, Crawford helped lead the school to one Moore League title and two co-championships.
She is a fan of the interactive, mobile game Pokémon Go and plays it while on the road. "I enjoy battling other Pokémon players. It's so much better now with the upgrades." Crawford also likes going to the beach and spending time outdoors in nature.
Preston, the Titans head coach, said Crawford's teammates already look up to her. "Off the court, she is reserved but funny. The girls have really taken to her. She has leadership skills that she isn't aware that she has."
Crawford said she would like to hone her blocking and serving skills and have more positive touches and digs. She said the team is moving in the right direction.
"The Big West is a very strong conference," said Crawford. "Honestly, if we just stay connected and stay with the process, we will have a great outcome."