Senior DeLaina Sarden's teammates stood by her side as she drifted midair to block a ball.

The women who will be filling her middle blocker position keep their ears open and eyes peeled as she walks them through the techniques that have allowed her to become the 10th player in UCF volleyball history to record 1,000 career kills.

It was the final time in Black and Gold that the 6-foot-1-inch, 22-year-old would have the chance to demonstrate the abilities she crafted in Northern Georgia and honed in Central Florida.

"The words I want to leave behind for the newcomers are, 'Listen, think, act,'" Sarden said. "If you first listen and [then] think about how it's going to affect you and then act, you will be prepared for anything that comes your way.

"This is a hard lesson to learn, but when I reflect on my experiences here at UCF, the important thing was to listen."

The road to success wasn't an easy one for Sarden. In order to find her passion and become the teams' most valuable player, she had to overcome early struggles and challenges.

While fighting for her middle blocker spot, Sarden was pushed harder than ever in the game, gym and classroom – only to cheer for her teammates from the bench.

At times, she felt hopeless.

"When the girls who were recruited with me quit and went back to Georgia, I decided to quit too," Sarden said. "But something inside me told me to stick with it … I would say, 'Look, I know I'm better than these girls. I know I can compete. Give me a chance.'"

That something may have been someone.

Someone who knew Sarden better than anyone else and reminded her what it took to earn her spot.

"I said to her, 'You have to be patient and pay your dues. You need to stay there [because] UCF is a beautiful school,'" her mother, Debra Sarden, said.

Those words reminded Sarden why she had chosen UCF, and it opened her eyes to the opportunities that would allow her to grow as a player and as an individual.

"I decided to stay and push through and do what they asked me to do," Sarden said. "I decided to listen."

Not only did she earn the spot she had fought so hard for, but she became the 2011 Conference USA Freshman of the Year in the process.

During her four-year career at UCF, she had a spot on the All-Conference USA First Team in 2012, All-American Athletic Conference First Team in 2013 and 2014, was a part of the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-Region First Team the past three years, and she capped her career with a 2014 American Athletic Conference Player of the Year.

"I watched DeLaina's confidence grow from a little girl who was unsure and scared, to being a grown woman who was willing to take risks," head coach Todd Dagenais said.

While overcoming obstacles, Sarden realized what worked for her was to listen, become selfless and do her best every time – no matter what stood in her way. In the process of grasping the lessons, she developed a passion for her future career.

After Sarden receives her bachelor's degree in human communication, she will continue her journey at Michigan State University as the new Graduate Assistant Athletic Trainer in the Office of Student-Athlete Support Services.

"Her decision to get into the business right away wasn't surprising at all," sophomore teammate Taylor Gallart said. "DeLaina has great leadership abilities."

"With her experience as a successful collegiate student-athlete, DeLaina is going to be able to relate to students that she'll be working with in the future," said Margaret Dann, an academic advisor for student-athletes.

As the team prepares to say goodbye to Sarden, they will remember an extraordinary woman who inspired them with her leadership and challenged them with her physical abilities and competitive spirit.

"She's [a] strong-willed and a driven person," sophomore teammate Kia Bright said. "She takes things head-on."


Mona Howe is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.