College Sports

Charlotte 49ers volleyball player follows her calling

Anna Mae Messisco is a member of the Charlotte 49ers’ volleyball team.
Anna Mae Messisco is a member of the Charlotte 49ers’ volleyball team.

It was late July, a few weeks before practice for the 2017 season was to start, and Karen Weatherington’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing.

Weatherington, coach of the Charlotte 49ers’ women’s volleyball team, said she asked herself several times, “Who is calling from this Salisbury number?”

She finally got a spare minute and answered a call.

“Coach, you don’t know me, but my name is Anna Mae Messisco, and I’d like to play volleyball for you,” said the voice on the other end.

It wasn’t a typical college recruiting process, but nothing is typical in the life of Messisco, who is now one day away from becoming Anna Mae Connell. But more about that later.

The next day, when Messisco visited the Charlotte campus, Weatherington got to meet a young woman who has packed a lot of living into 21 years – taking up the sport of volleyball in middle school, because it looked like fun; suffering a serious knee injury in high school; becoming what is believed to be the first N.C. student recruited to play beach volleyball in college; walking away from that college opportunity to complete a church mission, knocking on doors of strangers’ homes; and landing a spot on a college team with a flurry of last-minute phone calls.

Oh, she’s getting married Saturday – on the opening weekend of volleyball season.

“I guess life has been kind of crazy,” Messisco said one recent afternoon after practice.

She and her sister Emily, who is about 18 months older, decided to enter a beach volleyball tournament when Anna Mae was 14. It didn’t go well.

“Emily talked me into trying again,” Anna Mae recalled. “We won. I was hooked.”

The Messisco sisters were home-schooled by their parents, Leslie and Brian. They played both indoor and beach volleyball on teams, and then Anna Mae spent her senior year at West Rowan High, where she was a standout in volleyball and basketball – and where she suffered a serious right-knee injury in basketball season.

After surgery and recovery, Messisco said she decided to stick with beach volleyball. This was in spring 2014, and beach volleyball was being added to a number of collegiate sports programs. Messisco was recruited by several schools but chose Alabama-Birmingham.

At the time, the N.C. Sand Volleyball Association said it believed Messisco to be the first N.C. student to land a Division I scholarship in the sport.

But when Messisco got to Birmingham in autumn 2014, something else was tugging at her.

She and her family are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as Mormons. Completing an 18-month mission is a part of young Mormons’ lives, and although Messisco originally planned to wait until after college, “I just felt the need to do it then.”

She left UAB and her beach volleyball career for her mission. After a quick course in Spanish, she was assigned to preach to the Latino community in Salt Lake City.

“Knocking on doors of strangers is a real learning experience,” she said.

She completed the mission earlier this year, about the time that she and boyfriend Zach Connell started getting serious with one another. One day in July, Zach got down on a knee and proposed. Their wedding will be Saturday in Columbia.

Messisco decided to complete college somewhere near Charlotte. And that’s where the phone calls to Weatherington came in.

“Knocking on those doors in Salt Lake City made it easier to call the coach,” Messisco said.

The transition from beach volleyball – with its two-member teams and slow footing – to the indoor game can be difficult.

“My first few days at practice were ugly,” Messisco said.

“It was like she was tripping over herself,” Weatherington said.

But the 49ers’ coach said the 5-foot-10 redshirt freshman, who plays the setter position, has big upside.

“She is very athletic, very talented,” Weatherington said.

“My teammates have been very supportive,” Messisco added.

Messisco won’t be with the 49ers for their opening matches at home Friday against S.C. State and Southern Utah, and Saturday against Elon. She’ll be getting married. But she plans to be back at practice Monday.

“Anna is an honest, caring, supportive, outspoken person who is a joy to have on our team,” Weatherington said.

“Her purpose in life is bigger than volleyball,” she added.