Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Retired Athlete's Club Volleyball Appreciation Post

C-Fed's 17 Mizuno team winning match point at the Semi-Finals of JVA
About six years ago, one of my favorite volleyball coaches passed away from Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a disease of the bone marrow and blood.

Although it may seem overly convenient to speak fondly of an individual who is no longer with us, I would argue these as uncontested facts. Anyone who has seen this woman play or coach, or witnessed any of the passion her former player's compete would see the fire, competitiveness, and volleyball IQ she instilled in all of us. It's been nearly 10 years since I've played for her, and the memories from that year, along with my time at Sports Performance helped shape me into the player and individual I developed into today.

Chris Fedrico, or C-Fed as the volleyball community would call her, was my coach my junior year at Sports Performance Volleyball Club. Undeniably our season could be seen as a success, as we won the JVA National Championships, but so many other things defined that season that only those within the club would understand.

Her death falls around the same month as our AAU National Championship in Orlando Florida. Which brings back good memories of exploring Disney, sharing a house with my teammates, and playing against some of the best teams in North America. Also, usually underperforming and disappointing ourselves, coaches, and parents- but those memories are not nearly as strong as the team bonding with our team and coaches each year.

17 Mizuno Team at Universal during AAUs

This particular team where she was my coach was Sports Performance 17 Mizuno (Zuno as C-Fed would shortly re-name us), and we had a lot of uphill battles. We were sandwiched between two outstanding age levels in our program, with some of the greatest players I've competed with. In fact, some are still playing today overseas or at the Olympic level, and so our club director Rick Butler made the decision to make some changes early on that were quite uncommon. To my knowledge, before or after us, there was never a true 17s team that would compete at Sports Performance, but rather combine us with the talented athletes the year ahead of us, Rick and Cheryl decided to take a big risk and make a new standalone 17s team.

For those of you who don't understand volleyball, I won't go into too much detail, but we also had a new offense was created with C-Fed, Rick Butler, and Cheryl Butler that I still have a hard time explaining. Rick is the club director, and coached many of us on 18 Elite, C-Fed was presented this opportunity to "try something new", and Cheryl was probably the one who put all the puzzle pieces together, as she was a coach that a core group of us had for our 14s and 15s year, and our setter for 3 years. This offense was a 5-1, with our exceptional setter running the offense from the middle, and our 4 undersized outside hitters playing both outside and right side with no true base position. We only had one middle, and our setter had to learn to become a middle for blocking purposes.  C-Fed would regularly jump-in during practices, create free-ball plays where our libero would run "fake" attacks in the front-row, and acted as our spokesperson for recruiting in the year that the majority of us made our college decisions. She was a truly selfless coach, that had a huge impact on all of the players she touched or competed against.

Team Bonding at Owls in December with Zuno

Furthermore, she brought together a team that many of us had never played together before, which has many obstacles. While we had a core group from about 14s-16s playing together, we had 4 new additions to Sports Performance on our team. Although this may seem normal, as many people in the volleyball world know, Sports Performance has certain expectations that it's not always easy to understand and cope with.

If you haven't hard of Sports Performance before, there is a unique culture of commitment. As a Sports Performance player, I've been asked if many things are true, and if many things are not true. I'm sure I'm forgetting some, but here's a little Fact vs. Fiction-

  • We only are allowed to eat salads.  Fiction- but every year a team decides on team and personal sacrifices, a lot of times dietary to help our bodies perform at high and efficient levels, and share a sense of commitment. Examples include- candy, soda, fast food, white flour, etc..
  • We didn't leave tournaments until our last team was done.  Fact- Although we are required to stay to watch, we are not required to stay and cheer, so whenever you see a court full of Sports Performance teams, its genuine excitement for our peers. Some of my fondest memories were creating new cheers, and watching other teams achieve their goals that we understand all the behind the scenes work effort
  • We sleep there. Fiction- we spent a lot of time at the gym, and many naps have been taken in the senior locker room waiting for late night ride.
  • We have a weight room facility onsite. Fact- I'm forever grateful for the phenominal foundations and form I learned there at an early age. Our club directors welcomed athletes to come year round, and even athletes returning from college to use the facilities.
  • You can't go to prom. Fiction- Although only seniors are permitted to miss practice for Prom (shoutout to my teammates who helped do my hair in the locker room, brought perfume and got me out the door in 10 minutes after my junior year for a Friday night prom), the size of the program, and importance of Friday practices before Saturday tournaments was never a big deal. We chose to make these commitments at the beginning of the season, and there were never complaints on my teams.

Finally, probably the most common misconception I've had is: Sports Performance doesn't let players have fun.

This was always the one most puzzling to me, as it's though they are implying I had no choice of where I played volleyball. Although I'd agree, the commitment to excellence the program demands is not a good fit for the casual player, but if you wanted to play at a high level, receive an elite level of coaching, and win national championships, I'd have a hard time finding a better program.

I understand I am extremely biased, but just looking at the stats:
  •  the Sports Performance website shows regularly 30-40 athletes going onto play on at the college level each year (with the majority receiving full scholarships), going to 267 Colleges and Universities over the years
  • At the 2016 Olympics, 3 or the 24 Olympians were Sports Performance Alumni (Kelsey Robinson, Kelly Murphy, Thomas Jaeschke)
  • 43 Sports Performance Alumni have been name to the AVCA Division 1 All-American Teams
  • 83 AAU/JVA/USAV National Championships (Girls and Boys)
What these stats don't show, are the stats that I'm curious about that say a lot more about the program than the above:
  • How many hours I've spent in dance parties in vans and lockerrooms
  • How many bridesmaids and maids of honor have been former Sports Performance Teammates
  • How many hours coaches spend outside of practice watching film on the team and opponents, brainstorming new lineups, communicating with college coaches, and working other jobs
  • How many hours after our Sports Performance careers former teammates have spent visiting others
  • How many college coaches, athletic trainers, and weight room staff appreciated the work ethic we shared with our collegiate teammates.
  • The number of alumni coaches have met for lunches and dinners to catch-up on our lives.
  • The number of alumni Rick and Cheryl have connected for job or networking opportunities

As another group of girls are packing for AAUs, please enjoy every minute with teammates and coaches that will impact your lives for the years to come. The bond you'll have with these teammates is like nothing else, and these people will be your Sports Performance family for life. And  finally, make sure you set two alarms the morning of your flight, and know which Chicago airport you are flying out of so you're not running through the airport with Rick Butler 10 minutes before you take-off.

18s year with Rick Butler and Joe Jablonski at AAUs. I did get on the plane.