By Walter Villa
The photo was snapped during Madison Bugg’s sophomore season.
It was moments before the 2009 state final, and the Cardinal Gibbons (Raleigh, N.C.) players had lined up for pre-match introductions.
While everyone else was smiling and waving to the crowd, Bugg’s hands had formed fists, her face had morphed into a scowl and her body language screamed defiance.
The year before, Bugg had broken into the starting lineup as a freshman, and Gibbons had lost in the state final -- a result she was determined to avoid.
As it turns out, 2009 was the first of three straight state titles for Gibbons, and Bugg won MVP honors each time, making for a virtually perfect high school career.
But Bugg, who has been named a 2011 ESPNHS All-American, wasn’t satisfied.
“It would have been perfect,” Bugg said of her prep career, “if we had won (state) my freshman year. But we made too many mistakes, and it was beyond frustrating because we were good enough to win.”
Bugg certainly has what it takes to excel. The 6-foot senior was the setter on her club team (Triangle) but unselfishly played outside hitter at Gibbons. With other setting options, Gibbons had a greater need for Bugg to finish points.
“It speaks to the type of person she is,” said Mike Schall, a former assistant at Penn State and Bugg’s coach last summer with the Triangle program. “There was some sacrifice on her end. But at the root of it, she wants to win.”
Bugg describes herself as stubborn and driven, but she is far from one-dimensional. Beyond her athletic excellence, she also carries a 4.65 grade-point average and has a scholarship to Stanford.
Academics were a big part of the reason why she chose Stanford. Other coaches who recruited her, Bugg said, just asked her if her grades were good and then talked volleyball.
Stanford had the only staff that told her she needed a high SAT score to get admitted.
Ironically, Stanford was the first volleyball team Bugg can remember watching as a 7-year-old kid. She told her father, Dick, that Stanford would one day be her college destination.
“Nobody thought that was even possible,” Bugg said. “His basic response was: ‘Good luck with that.’ ”
Perhaps no one should have doubted Bugg, considering that her mother was a volleyball star at Tennessee and is in the Volunteers’ Hall of Fame. Bugg’s mom, who at the time was known by her maiden name of Robin Maine, was a 5-10 middle blocker.
“Her knees are shot now,” Bugg said. “But she can still hit.”
Robin, who coached high school volleyball and is now part of the Triangle staff, said her daughter was raised on the sport.
“She was three weeks old,” Robin said, “when I started taking her to the gym.”
The family -- Bugg is the oldest of three siblings -- moved around a few times due to Dick’s job with Fidelity Investments. Bugg was born in Plano, Texas, and adjusted to life in Utah and New Hampshire before settling in Raleigh at age 12.
Through all the changes, volleyball was a constant. Bugg can remember playing pepper with her mother and, at times, getting hit in the face.
“She didn’t get her hands up fast enough,” Robin said.
Perhaps that pounding toughened up Bugg, who has shown a tremendous tolerance for pain.
In 2010, she sprained her ankle in practice right before the state semifinals but still played.
“She won state MVP on one good ankle,” Gibbons coach Logan Barber said. “But even if her leg had fallen off, she would have found a way to get on the court.”
The injury bug hit Bugg again this year, when she played with a painful back that bothered her for the last two-thirds of the season.
Jim Freeman, who coached her for her first two years at Gibbons, said Bugg is more than just durable. Freeman, who won 10 state titles in his last 12 years at Gibbons, said Bugg ranks with former Penn State star Megan Hodge as the greatest prep player in North Carolina history.
“Madison’s hand-eye coordination is off the charts,” said Freeman, now the head coach at Division II Barton College in Wilson, N.C.
Freeman, who was there when Bugg stared down her opponents right before the 2009 state final, said his former star’s mental makeup is her biggest gift.
“She’s extremely competitive,” Freeman said. “The bigger the game, the more she likes it and the better she plays. And that’s very rare.”