Some athletes leave their sport and never go back, but Hunter Taylor, from Richmond, Virginia, has returned after a year off with an even greater love for volleyball. His dedication has resulted not only in accolades at Eastern Mennonite University, where he was Royals Athlete of the Week in early February, but also a spot on the 2015-2017 USA Men’s National Deaf Volleyball Team.
Taylor will compete with the national team in the World Deaf Volleyball Championships this summer in Washington, D.C., and then in the 22nd Summer Deaflympics in Samsun, Turkey, in 2017. Taylor is one of only four men accepted to the national team roster; the six others listed are developmental athletes.
Taylor’s journey as a collegiate player began with frustration: he played in only 12 sets his freshman year and eventually transferred to Radford University. But in his year away, Hunter realized that he missed playing volleyball. In fact, he needed to play volleyball.
“Late March at Radford I started going through some rough times,” said Hunter. “I lost myself. A close friend of mine told me she didn’t know who I was anymore. I vowed to her that I’d find myself and find a way to make myself happy again. I was also failing school and my grandfather was getting sicker and sicker that year. I felt like I needed to find myself again and go back to my roots.”
His grandfather died in December. A simple drive on I-81 started turning the wheels to get him back at EMU.
“One day I drove back to Radford and while passing the Harrisonburg exit, I texted my old roommate, teammate and best friend, Scott Brigham (Montpelier, Va./Patrick Henry). I asked him if it would be crazy if I came back to EMU and he said that the team could use me. I considered it and months later I had applied to EMU and was back to where I first started.”
Back with the Royals, Taylor has had an impressive start to his second collegiate volleyball season. In a match against Lancaster Bible College, the opposite matched his career high of seven kills for the second straight contest with a .500 attack percentage on just 12 swings. He also added four service aces, two blocks and five digs.
“Hunter works hard. You can tell he wants it more than ever,” Coach Dominick Porter said. “Since he’s been back, he’s matured so much and he’s developed a lot, too. He has much more control, he’s much more effective when it comes to hitting, as you can see he hit .500. He can just go up and get a ball.”
Taylor says his deafness has little impact on his ability to play at an elite level. “Honestly I don’t think it affects me as much as you think it would,” he said. “Volleyball is a lot of hand signals and people yell ‘ball’ loud enough so I get out of the way most of the time. Then again, I’ve had coaches and even teachers tell me they didn’t want me on their team or in their classroom because they didn’t want to face my disability. So I’ve always kept that chip on my shoulder whenever I play or try to ace a test.”
Taylor was the first two-year-old in the world to have the MED-EL cochlear implant for hearing loss implanted under his skin.
“It’s cool to see the same people that go through what I go through on a daily basis and people be fluent in sign language while communicating with others,” he noted. “It’s like a new language that you’re just fascinated to see and want to keep watching.”
Meanwhile, the team is happy to have Hunter back. His presence adds new energy and dedication.
“We love him,” Porter said. “Before he left, I even told him, ‘If you ever want to come back please come back.’ I knew he wanted to play volleyball and I guess he just wasn’t ready at the time to do what he’s doing now.”
Taylor said he is just happy to be playing volleyball at EMU.
“It feels great to be back, I’m a more confident player this time around,”said Taylor. “It’s weird, it’s like taking a year off from volleyball was the best thing I’ve ever done for my career – I’m still figuring out my role on the team, but I’m always ready to come in and give a spark to the team whenever Dom calls on me. My freshman year I came in expecting a lot of things, so this year to avoid stress I’m coming in with no expectations. I’m just happy to be here.”