Gabby Waden leads the way

Gabby Waden (8)

STARKVILLE – It’s hard enough to head off to college a semester early as a 17-year-old. Now imagine being a 17-year-old expected to be a top-level athlete in the Southeastern Conference. And oh, by the way, you’re recovering from a torn ACL to boot.

That’s the situation Mississippi State volleyball’s Gabby Waden found herself in back in early 2018. She was a brand new Bulldog with a bright future in front of her. Yet, her career was starting with a hurdle.

“It was a lot of lonely times I think for her,” MSU head coach Julie Darty Dennis said of the first few months of Waden’s time in Starkville.

Adversity isn’t pleasant, but given patience, it certainly can develop strength. Now, nearly four years later, Waden is as talented and tough as they come. With the Bulldogs already off and running in 2021, out to a red-hot 7-2 start to the season, Waden is helping lead the way.

It’s a moment she has been working for since first hobbling onto campus so long ago.

Right Place, Right Time

Looking back now, it seems incredibly fitting.

When Waden first arrived at MSU back in January of 2018, it wasn’t just her first day on campus. It was Dennis’ too. Dennis had just been chosen as the new head coach of State volleyball. She was starting to construct a foundation for a consistently successful program.

Waden was a building block of that, even if she did have to rehab her knee for a bit. It wasn’t ideal to begin a college volleyball career in such a manner, but Waden believed in her heart she was in the right spot, with the right coach and on the right team.

“I feel like Mississippi State was the best place for me to come back and get better, not just being 100 percent, but getting to 150 percent,” Waden said.

It was a slow go at first for Waden.

“She had a rough spring in 2018 because she couldn’t do anything with the team,” Dennis recalled.

Sitting and watching isn’t easy for pretty much any athlete, especially not for someone like Waden, who came to MSU as one of the state of South Carolina’s top prep prospects. She had over 1,000 kills and 500 blocks in her four years at Blythewood High School. She was a four-time all-region selection and a three-time region player of the year. There were three All-State honors. She was a three-time team captain and team most valuable player.

That was all in the past though. At MSU, patience would be required as Waden worked her way back.

By the fall of 2018, Waden was making progress. She made her MSU debut in early October and went on to appear in 14 matches as a freshman. Waden wasn’t where she wanted to be as a Bulldog yet, but she was at least back in action. It was a start.

“I feel like coming back here, getting my rehab done, and making sure that I kept my eye on the prize – [focusing on] getting back out there and staying on the volleyball court is what definitely got me through those hard times,” Waden said.

Breaking Out

Simply playing was great for Waden, but everyone knew her potential was through the roof. She had to work in order to reach it.

By Waden’s sophomore season in 2019, she was starting to show flashes of the player she could be. She led State in kills and points. She tallied double-digit kills in a team-best 18 matches. There were glimpses of greatness.

Waden carried that momentum right into the 2020-21 season. It was a unique volleyball campaign as the COVID-19 pandemic caused the schedule to be split into a fall and spring portion. And while that’ll always make the year stand out, it might also be remembered as the season Waden became all MSU believed she could be.

Dennis points to an early November series at Texas A&M as Waden’s breakout moment.

“That was when we really realized that she is an unstoppable force against one of the best teams in the league,” Dennis said of Waden.

Texas A&M was ranked No. 7 in the country at the time. The Bulldogs rolled into College Station and beat the Aggies twice. Waden spearheaded the upsets, totaling 20 kills in the series opener and a season-best 24 kills in the finale. She had the win-clinching kill in both matches. Waden was absolutely incredible.

While the Bulldogs saw they had a star, Waden also discovered she belonged among the SEC’s elite players.

“Just being able to rise to the occasion for the team and to put 100 percent of my effort into it is what helped me realize that I am capable of being one of the best right sides in the conference,” Waden said.

Waden went on to be chosen to last season’s All-SEC Team, the first Bulldog in nearly a decade to capture the honor. She finished the season sixth in the SEC in kills, which stood as the second-best mark among league right sides. Waden had arrived.

“I am so proud of Gabby,” Dennis said after last season. “This has been three seasons in the making. She has become a dominant, reliable player for us on the court, and she is a leader who has helped us with building our culture and implementing change.”

A Cornerstone

Now a senior, Waden is flourishing in all aspects.

She’s a leader, voted captain for the second-straight season. Waden continues to be a force in-game as well. State has played in three events to begin this season and Waden has been chosen to All-Tournament teams in two of the three.

Waden stands as the epitome of a player who put her head down and worked to get to the top of her game, both as an athlete and teammate.

“She has blossomed into this role,” Dennis said of Waden. “It’s been really cool to watch her mature and grow up. It has not been easy doing what she has done on and off the court. It takes a ton of time and a ton of effort. That is what people don’t see, the behind-the-scenes stuff. She has invested in this program and she came here for a reason. She wanted to do something different for Mississippi State and put this program on the map. She has really done that and she has put herself on the map.”

Waden’s star is shining bright. Not coincidently, so too is Mississippi State’s. Behind Waden, the Bulldogs head into this weekend’s Hail State Invitational with the momentum of its strong start that most recently featured wins over Big Ten foe Indiana and Big 12 opponent Oklahoma last week at the Georgia Tech Invitational.

MSU will now look to try and keep the good times rolling. Of course right at the forefront of the charge will be Waden.

“We are a better team because she’s here,” Dennis said. “We are going to go as Gabby goes. She has embraced that pressure is privilege.

“She is fully committed to being the best she can be.”

The better Waden is, the better the Bulldogs are. At the end of the day, that’s Waden’s main concern.

“I feel like with the SEC knowing who I am now and having a scouting report on me, I have really no other choice but to get better,” Waden said. “That’s all I’m worried about this season – making myself and the team better.”

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