Ashlynn Dunbar’s coach notices the smile she wears walking into the gym every day.
OU coach Lindsey Gray-Walton relishes the impact Dunbar, a graduate transfer via San Diego State, has made through her infectious attitude and high-caliber play in just one season in Norman.
The Seabrook, Texas, native has emerged as an on-court leader for the Sooners (15-7, 7-4 Big 12), a de facto hype woman and constant show of comfort in her new home.
“I'm feeling like she's really happy with where she's at right now,” Gray-Walton said. “To be able to say that this is how she's going to finish things off, because when she does play, she plays with pure joy. And you can't fake that.”
Gray-Walton originally recruited Dunbar’s competitive spirit to Kentucky, where she served as an assistant prior to OU. The Sooner coach says she likes to joke with Dunbar that the talented player told her “no” coming out of high school and was glad to get a second opportunity at a “yes.”
Dunbar nearly gave up, though, on volleyball.
She appeared in 310 sets over 83 matches at San Diego State and felt exhausted. She thought her playing career met its expiration date following her junior season as her physical and mental health became too difficult to ignore.
“The environment that I was in at San Diego State for volleyball just wasn't a good fit for me,” Dunbar said. “I struggled mentally just wanting to be there every day and showing up, and it was just hard for me to come in every day and want to work hard and want to be there and want to play volleyball.”
The following spring, Dunbar transitioned into coaching with Coast Volleyball Club.
Her pupils, which consisted of 17- and 18-year-old players, ultimately helped her realize she still had another year in her.
“Just playing with the girls and showing them how much fun they can have and what the next step has to offer for them,” Dunbar said. “I just realized that I had so much to offer to volleyball still and just being able to give that information to them, I felt like it would be so nice for me to come into a different program and be able to help the people underneath me and help them grow as players for my last season.”
Dunbar ultimately found OU, the same program her club coaches Suzy Boulavsky and Brianne Barker competed for.
OU’s proximity to her Texas home helped as well.
She says her parents, Louis and Victoria Dunbar, have attended every home OU match. Her move has also made it easier for extended family to see her final season of college volleyball.
It’s been an enjoyable last go-around for Dunbar, who knew from her first McCasland Field House experience with OU’s intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 24 she made the right decision.
“It just felt like home,” Dunbar said. “It felt like the perfect place to be and it was super exciting. It made me excited and pumped to play volleyball, so I knew from that moment this is going to be a great season for us.”
Dunbar will try to continue OU’s solid 2019 campaign against Texas Tech in Norman on Wednesday and beyond with the goals she set for her and her squad.
“I think for us, it's just going to be finishing strong and going into the tournament, and just seeing how far we can go,” Dunbar said. “The tournament's always a goal for us, but we know that we're better than just a first-round, tournament-making team. So let's go deep and see what we can do as a team.”
Follow me @ByJoeBuettner