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Cleared For Takeoff Texas volleyball star Erin Aldrich has an eye on even loftier goals in the high jump

The game was slipping away until Erin Aldrich put her foot down.
Her long, strong, pogo-stick legs can be as dominant a weapon in
her chosen fields as the arm of Pedro Martinez is in his. Aldrich
is not only a three-time NCAA champion in the high jump but also
a potential All-America middle blocker for Texas's No. 12-ranked
volleyball team.

In either role she separates herself from her peers, as she did
on Oct. 30 in a Big 12 volleyball match in Austin. Kansas was
throwing a scare at the Lady Longhorns until Aldrich, a 6'2"
senior, asked teammate Jill Gremmel to just set her the damn
ball. Moments later Aldrich was spiking Texas to a 14-13 lead,
then killing again for a side-out that allowed the Longhorns to
clinch a 3-0 victory.

"I'm convinced Erin could be the best volleyball player who has
ever played in this country," says Texas coach Jim Moore. "She's
so good already, and she only does it four or five months a year.
She has gifts for volleyball that no one has ever had."

Aldrich's spectacular array of skills includes an obvious talent
for spiking, as well as an uncanny ability to dig out saves. If
Aldrich devoted herself full time to volleyball, she could become
the equivalent of a basketball giant who plays in the backcourt,
runs the floor and dunks on everyone. Aldrich, though, is not so
sure. She admits she has trouble adapting to the social
requirements of a team sport. "I find myself in volleyball being
so focused on what I need to do, and a little bit closed off from
my teammates," she says.

Instead of trying to play her way onto the U.S. volleyball team
in time for next September's Olympic Games, Aldrich hopes to make
it to Sydney as a high jumper--a lonelier path. Her decision comes
after years of experimenting. While some athletes draw strength
from their teammates, she prefers to rely entirely on herself. A
Garbo in spikes, she wants to jump alone.

Aldrich has been a type A kid ever since she was a grade-schooler
playing soccer in Dallas, according to her father, John Aldrich,
a real-estate developer. Erin's athletic pedigree comes from her
grandfather, Ki Aldrich, who was an All-America center and
linebacker at Texas Christian in the 1930s before following
teammate Sammy Baugh to the Washington Redskins for a 10-year NFL
career. "She was one of the better players on every team she was
on, but we had no idea she was a world-class talent," her father
says. That changed in 1993, when her parents drove her to Austin
for the Texas Relays, at which--as a 15-year-old
ninth-grader--Aldrich won the statewide high school division in
the high jump.

That same year she began playing volleyball. Though she enrolled
at Arizona on a volleyball scholarship, the high jump was her
obsession. After her high jump coach, John Rembao, left Arizona
in the summer of 1997 to become an assistant at Texas, Aldrich
followed him to Austin on a volleyball scholarship. "At Arizona
some people tended to think of her as standoffish, which she
wasn't," Rembao says. "She was just so into what she was doing as
an athlete."

For a month or so last spring, having helped Texas earn three
straight NCAA track and field titles--two of them indoors--Aldrich
tried to find out what she had been missing. With friends, she
went out to bars and clubs on Austin's Sixth Street. She blames
this "loss of focus" for her failure to win the NCAA outdoor
championship in June. She finished fifth, even as her team was
winning its fourth successive title.

"I let other things get into my head, silly things--relationships,
trying to make everybody happy," she says. "I was having a lot of
fun, but then I just kind of caught myself. I said, I can't be
like a regular college student. I can't do things that normal
college students do, because I'm not normal."

Aldrich has decided to sacrifice short-term happiness for
long-term fulfillment. "I do believe and hope that I can hold the
world record in the high jump," she says. The world mark of
6'10 1/4" is held by Stefka Kostadinova of Bulgaria; Aldrich's
best mark outdoors is a mere 6'4". (Last year she equaled the
NCAA indoor record of 6'5 1/2".) "Her best years will be six,
seven, eight years from now," says Rembao, who coached his wife,
Sue, to the 1992 Olympics. "Basically, Erin's going to have to
jump 10 inches over her head to break the world record. My wife
is 5'9", and she jumped eight inches over her head. I love my
wife, but Erin's a much better athlete than my wife was, and
she's way more aggressive. I've never in my life met somebody as
competitive as Erin."

Starting in January, Aldrich will be competing solely against the
elevated bar. As for the remainder of her volleyball season, she
is uncertain if Texas will realize its potential and reach the
Final Four. "Our biggest problem is holding each other
accountable," Aldrich says. "If somebody makes a bad play, we
don't look at her and say, 'You need to get that ball.' Instead
we're like 'O.K., guys, we'll do better.' We are so nice to each
other, I can't believe it. It's just crazy how cohesive we are.
We are way too cohesive."

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Spiked punch Part-time volleyballer Aldrich soars on the court.