When junior outside hitter Emani’ Foster arrived at Charlotte in 2020, she came across as an unassuming young lady. Coach Karen Weatherington said the team “didn’t really hear a peep out of her” that first year.
Foster would attend class, go to practice, go back to her dorm room and study, and there is a lot of study time required for a pre-med major. There wasn’t, however, much about her personna that made her stand out.
But her volleyball skills …
Foster is one of the most accomplished girls volleyball players in North Carolina high school history. She was the first in the state to record 2,000 career kills, and, this summer, Vance County High School retired her number and gave her a banner in their gymnasium. Foster addressed a group of athletes during her visit and said she told them to chase their dreams and do what they love doing.
Foster is following her own exhortation. Foster, who at 5-foot-10 can touch 10-6, averaged 4.15 kills per set (282 total) as a freshman and hit .283.
And it wasn’t long before her coach and teammates found out there was personality to go with the power.
“When I first met her, I pictured her to be very quiet and shy,” said 49ers senior setter Annika Wetterstrom, “and all of a sudden, we’d be in a timeout, and she’d start busting down these (dance) moves that you wouldn’t expect.
“But it gets the whole team laughing and brings some good energy.”
Added Weatherington: “As we’re switching sides, it’s not unusual to see Emani’ do ‘The Griddy.’ ”
Foster laughs a semi-embarrassed laugh when asked about her dance moves, but doesn’t deny doing them. She said it’s all about staying loose and keeping her teammates loose during tense matches.
And she has loosened up in terms of her willingness to be vocal. The way she saw it, she had no choice but to come out of her shell.
“It was a difficult transition because I’m usually quiet on the court,” said Foster, a junior who carries a 4.0 GPA in her major. “I used to just do what I did, and there wasn’t much communication. But in college, you kind of have to. Everybody needs to know what you’re doing. We all have to be on the same page, and communication just helps the team chemistry.”
Added Wetterstrom: “I think it’s just coming into her personality and realizing that she can be more of a vocal leader, and she’s done a great job with that.”
Her play, on the other hand, has spoken volumes. A second-team All-Conference USA selection last season, Foster is building the foundation of what could be her breakout season nationally.
Charlotte (6-4) and plays host to two other North Carolina teams, Davidson on Thursday then Wake Forest on Saturday. You can imagine their respective game plans focused heavily on Foster, who leads the nation in total kills (209), ranks fourth in the nation in kills per set (5.22) while hitting .306.
A recent four-match stretch illustrates how dominant Foster has been. On September 3, the 49ers played two matches at the Bulldog Classic at Georgia and Foster had 25 kills and a .400 hitting percentage vs. Texas Tech and 26 kills (.254) against College of Charleston. Then last week in a five-set victory over Virginia, she had 24 kills and hit .305.
But the signature match came September 6 against perennial ACC power North Carolina. In the 49ers’ hard-fought four-set loss to the Tar Heels, Foster had a career-high 28 kills and hit an eye-popping .369. Foster committed only four attack errors in 65 swings against North Carolina and added five blocks (two solos) and an ace.
“Those are middle blocker numbers,” Weatherington said.
Also in that four-match stretch, Foster had six aces and 49 digs. Longtime UNC coach Joe Sagula, whose team has faced Foster in the past, was duly impressed.
“Emani’ is so dynamic and an explosive jumper,” Sagula said in an email to VolleyballMag.com. “And it’s hard to predict where she will attack. This allows her to terminate over a block, go off-speed — but not often — and now she has learned to see the court well and has developed range as an attacker. That makes her dangerous.”
Said Weatherington: “For Emani’, she loves the big stage. She’s just fearless. The speed and the tempo with which North Carolina played … just showed her composure and her tenacity and just her attacking tool box where she opened things up.”
That “tool box” has a few more implements these days. During her freshman season, Foster, as a lot of first-year college players find out, discovered just swinging hard at every ball isn’t enough.
And if she needed any more incentive to expand her offensive repertoire, Foster suffered a torn labrum in her right shoulder halfway through last season.
Sitting out while recovering from the surgery accomplished two things, Weatherington said. First, it convinced Foster that she needed to become a more cerebral hitter. Second, it gave her time to watch video of elite hitters and see how they attacked opponents.
“Obviously, Emani’, what she was used to in club and in high school was just bang balls over any block,” Wetterstrom said. “But now that we’re in college playing at a higher level, she’s had to learn how to adjust some of her shots. I think she’s done a great job being able to see the block and hit around it.
“I love setting her. I feel like she’ll put down any ball I give her.”
Foster said she stayed on campus to train over the summer. As a result of the surgery, she said she can’t hit some of her shots the way she used to, so she worked with the coaching staff on modifying her technique.
In doing so, she was able to ease the stress on her shoulder as well as diversify her attacks.
“I’ve definitely grown a lot in the mental aspect of the game,” Foster said. “Freshman year, I came in and was just swinging. Swinging to swing. But now I have reached the level where I’m thinking about where I’m swinging, swinging smarter and not harder and taking the shots that I can see so I can score more for the team.”
Asked about her performance against North Carolina, Foster admitted she didn’t realize how many kills she had until afterward. Foster is mindful of how she is hitting during a match but not in terms of the number of kills she accumulates.
Instead, she said, she’s calculating efficiency: keeping a mental note of how many points she is scoring versus how many points she might be giving away. Another tribute to her advancing ability to “think” volleyball.
Foster said she has been working on other physical areas as well. As a six-rotation player, she has worked to improve her blocking and serve receive. The latter, she said, always has been a struggle.
Through the 49ers’ first 10 matches, her receive percentage was a serviceable .954. At the net, she has 17 total blocks and is well on her way to eclipsing her personal-best mark of 31 she had during her freshman season.
Weatherington has been happy with Foster’s progress, but what makes her happier is the notion that there’s a lot more in the tank. With her hitting and other skills continuing to develop, Weatherington said, Foster has not yet reached her ceiling.
Foster has the rest of this season plus two more — she said she plans to use her bonus COVID year — to develop.
In the meantime, Wetterstrom said Foster’s second-team all-conference honor in 2021 was a disservice and called her “underrated.”
Weatherington, whose daugher Zoe is a right side for Penn State who played previously at Utah, said she believes Foster is undervalued when it comes to national recognition.
“I think she is THE best-kept secret in the country,” the eighth-year coach said. “And not going to be so for long. She’s just a force to be reckoned with in all facets of the game. She’s really going to blossom.”
And her burgeoning stardom comes at a perfect time. Beginning with the 2023-24 season, Charlotte’s athletic programs will begin competition in the American Athletic Conference, and Foster will be leading the volleyball team into the fray.
Before that, she has some unfinished business in Conference USA.
If she was shy before, she is much less so now, and she certainly doesn’t hold back when talking about her goals for the season. She wants to hit better than .300, earn first-team all-conference and, taking it one step further, conference player of the year.
She also wants to put a C-USA trophy in the case at Charlotte before the 49ers depart. Last season, Charlotte finished 12-13 and was bounced from the conference tournament quarterfinals by Rice. This season, they were picked to finish fourth in the conference, but Foster said she believes they can surprise.
“I think we definitely will exceed expectations because we have such a good team chemistry this season, and everybody is leaving everything on the floor,” she said. “I’m just excited to see what we can do going into conference.
“We definitely have all the pieces of the puzzle. We just have to go out there and leave it all out there.”
And maybe showing off a few new dance moves along the way.