Jordyn Poulter made a tough choice about her future a month before her 15th birthday.
Pick playing for the college that won the NCAA national volleyball championship, or the school that finished second.
In the end, family connections put the NCAA runner-up — the University of Illinois — over champion UCLA in the heart of Poulter, a multi-talented 6-foot-1 setter at Eaglecrest High School. She verbally committed to coach Kevin Hambly and the Illini on July 1, several weeks before the start of her sophomore year.
“I love going back (to Illinois) in the summertime and seeing all the family and friends we have there, so I think it will be great,” Poulter said July 27, days after returning from tournaments in Italy and Croatia with the U.S. Girls Youth Volleyball Team.
“Most of my family have never seen me play volleyball before, so it will be nice having them at all the matches,” she added.
Poulter was born in Illinois and her parents both graduated from Eastern Illinois University. Her father Bob, a coach at the Front Range Volleyball Club and a physical education teacher at Eaglecrest, was pleased his daughter had come through a process that included visits to Colorado, Colorado State and a few other schools.
“Our family is very happy she has a decision,” Bob Poulter said. “She narrowed it down to UCLA and Illinois and it was a tough decision since they were both in the national championship game this year and they are very similar.”
A coveted prospect since before high school, interest in Poulter accelerated after a freshman season in which she helped coach Tanya Bond’s young Eaglecrest team starting two freshmen and a sophomore make an improbable run to the Class 5A state tournament.
She was selected first team All-City, All-Centennial League and among Prepvolleyball.com’s Frosh 59 after she recorded 483 assists, 169 kills, 97 blocks, 133 digs and 29 aces for the Raptors, who went 1-2 at state and 18-11 overall.
Bond called Poulter the best freshman starter she’s ever had at Eaglecrest, which puts her at the forefront of an impressive list that includes Courtney Karst (Arizona), Morgan Bohl (Minnesota) and Bailey Karst (Ohio).
The expectations will be considerably higher going into the 2012 season — which begins with practice Aug. 13 — as Poulter is now the third Division I commitment on the Eaglecrest roster.
The other two — senior middle blocker Ruth Okoye and junior outside hitter Taylor Loyd — have both given their pledges to the University of Denver, where they will join transfer Bailey Karst.
Poulter, for one, feels better equipped for the upcoming season coming off her overseas experience, a tune-up in Italy and the European Global Challenge July 15-21 in Pula, Croatia.
Teams from the Czech Republic, Croatia, Israel, Italy, Montenegro, Russia, Slovenia and Romania impressed her on many fronts.
“My eyes were really opened to the different level of play,” Poulter said. “You think the girls that win nationals here are good, but they are at another level. They can all do everything. They all hit and the libero can hit. They block a lot better and they are more physical than teams here.”
Poulter’s setting game has reached a new level in part due to her work with Jim Stone, a former coach at Ohio State who is her club coach at Front Range and also with the youth national team.
Though she still has a few years before she officially signs a letter of intent with Illinois, Poulter doesn’t plan to change her mind — even if other programs keep calling.
“I think the message is out there,” Poulter said.
Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-750-7555