As one of four graduating players honored on “Senior Night,” Allison Lee embraced her mother and brother before competing in what would be her final game ever at the Bren Events Center. For the 6-foot-0 outside hitter, the ceremony signified more than a simple farewell to her home court: it marked the culmination of an arduous journey made possible through the sacrifices of her loving mother.
“Without her, I honestly wouldn’t be here. I honestly wouldn’t have got the chance to do anything that I have been able to do. I basically owe her everything,” said an emotional Lee.
Lee immigrated from Seoul, South Korea to the United States at age six. In 1999, her mother, Katherine Lee, packed up her belongings and moved here with Allison and her older brother, Jeff, in search of the American dream. Despite not knowing anyone outside of Korea, Allison’s mother was determined to afford her children a better education and opportunities.
Standing a foot taller than most of her friends as a child, Lee grew to become self-conscious about her height. Upon her trips to Korea, Lee became accustomed to strangers staring at her feet to check if she was wearing heels. Hardly did a visit to relatives pass by without someone mentioning her height or asking if she planned on being the next Michelle Wie.
Resolving to take advantage of her height, Lee made the decision to take up volleyball right before her freshman year of high school. She would enroll at the Mizuno Long Beach Volleyball Club, where she befriended future teammates Marisa Bubica and Ella Rosenfeld. Within volleyball, Lee was no longer singled out because of her height. If anything, she was now one of the short ones.
Despite picking up the sport relatively late, Lee proved to be a quick learner. In her sophomore year, she was voted Offensive Player of the Year and finished fifth in the Junior Olympics with her club team.
Though Lee always saw room for improvement in herself, it was apparent to her peers that she was a natural at the sport. Hannah Nabbout, Lee’s teammate and best friend, still remembers how her mom urged her to learn from Lee when she first encountered her playing at a tournament in Anaheim.
“My mom stopped me and she [says], ‘Look at that player, she’s smart, she hits hard and she jumps so high.’ That’s how I got to know who she was,” Nabbout said.
Though she primarily played for fun, Lee began harboring ambitions to play collegiately after a recruitment trip to LMU at the end of her sophomore year. While most juniors were busy preparing for the SAT’s, Lee focused on improving her prospects of being recruited. Enamored with the idea of attending college on the east coast, Lee fielded offers from prestigious universities such as Yale and Cornell.
“I genuinely felt like it could take me somewhere,” Lee said.
However, Lee experienced a change of heart, deciding that she wouldn’t fare well in the frigid climate where most Ivy Leagues were located. Come senior year, this meant that Lee had no choice but to start from scratch in terms of being recruited. With most players typically committing as early as their sophomore years, Lee found herself as the only player within the club who had yet to commit to a program.
With the deadline for college applications fast approaching, Lee was faced with a dilemma: forego her athletic aspirations and concentrate on strengthening her applications as a student, or to continue seeking out a program despite the fact that most already completed their rosters.
Lee was by no means done playing, and could not fathom the idea of her volleyball career ending with high school. Her perseverance paid off, and she secured an offer to play at San Luis Obispo beginning in fall of 2011.
“It was absolutely stressful, being the last player to be recruited,” said Lee. “But at the end of day it all worked out.”
Her celebration was short-lived, however, as an injury during preseason effectively kept her from playing for the remainder of the season. Additionally, an unexpected coaching change that took place during the beginning of the season only served to compound Lee’s woes.
Seeking to transfer out, Lee decided to see about coming to UC Irvine. Not only was the campus close to her home, but it also offered a chance for her to be reunited with her former teammates from club, Bubica and Rosenfeld.
Once again, Lee endured an incredibly stressful period in her life as she applied to transfer, but again, things would work out.
Unfortunately, due to NCAA regulations, a player is ineligible to play the same year that they transfer, resulting in her sitting sidelined for yet another season.
Being unable to play would prove to be a blessing in disguise for Lee, as she developed a greater appreciation for her education during this period. Realizing that volleyball wasn’t the end goal, Lee tackled her studies with a rigor previously only reserved for her athletic endeavors.
“I’m aware I’m a student first. In the long run, not everybody is going to be a professional athlete and I’m very well aware of that,” Lee said.
Her effort was noticed, as Lee made the 2012-2013 Dean’s List and she was named to the 2013 Big West Fall All-Academic Team.
Upon finally being able to return to the court, Lee found herself in a state of shock as she started for Irvine at the All Pioneer Classic in Denver against Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Not only did the match count, but it was against girls the likes of whom she had never seen before in her life.
Snapping back to reality, Lee would contribute eight kills, nine digs and three block assists in the season opener for the Anteaters. She would make her presence felt throughout the year, finishing the season with a total of 156 kills while adding 132 digs.
In the final year of her career, Lee has recorded 14 doubles-doubles thus far and has racked up Big West Defensive Player of the Week honors. Alongside sophomore Cassidy Pickrell, Lee is one of the core components of the Anteaters offense, averaging 3.05 kills and 3.31 digs per game. Additionally, both are ranked 45th in the country in total aces, serving up 37 each.
“You can always look to her to get a kill. If we’re in a tough situation, I ask myself, ‘Who do I set?’ — Allison,” Nabbout said.
With her mother and brother looking on, Lee would lead the Anteaters with a team-high 11 kills to sweep the visiting Highlanders in the final home game of the season.
As her college career draws to a close, Lee is both excited and nervous to see what the real world has in store for her.
“I’ve been working my butt off in school and I know somehow it always works out.