Who knew that when I went to try out for my junior high school volleyball team in the 7th grade that I would end up playing professionally in Europe 11 years later? I was that awkward, tall, skinny girl who weighed about 100 pounds going into junior high. It looked like I would crumble into a million pieces if the ball hit me too hard. I have always loved playing and watching sports. Although it’s tough to be a Cleveland sports fan sometimes with the Indians, Cavs, and the Browns, I would support my teams no matter what.
When I was younger, softball was my first love. Playing in the summer with my friends was always my favorite time of the year. I tried swimming because that was my mom’s sport growing up, but I could never make it past the ‘shark’ level at the YMCA. I even tried dance for a while. That was interesting… All my life, everyone always told me I should be a basketball player because of my height. That sounds great, except for the fact that I can’t make a basket… Oh wait, one time I had an awesome shot from way past the half-court line, except it was for the OTHER team.
When my friends said they wanted to try out for volleyball, I was willing to give it a shot. The only time I had ever touched a volleyball was in gym class around the 5th grade for a week-long unit. I remembered liking the sport but that’s about it. I think there were around 45 girls trying out for the 7th grade team and they were taking around 12. Basically, if you could serve the ball overhand and in the court on the other side, you had a very good chance. Also, being a giant at the time had its advantages as well, since volleyball tends to be a ‘tall’ sport.
I still remember my first volleyball season like it was yesterday. My coach, Mr. Hollabaugh, was and still is one of the most influential people in my life. He was a special education teacher at my school, and is one of the main reasons I chose that as my final major at Clemson. I loved practices and games, and for once, I could actually semi play a sport well. I remember my grandpa passing away from cancer that year and how all of my teammates were there for me. That’s when I realized that being a part of a team sport is the coolest thing in the world. You have a whole other family that’s there to love and take care of you in good times and bad.
*Love you and miss you every day*
*Ridge Junior High Volleyball*
In 8th grade, I had an English teacher, Mr. Grzybowski. He was a volleyball coach for Eastside Cleveland Juniors, a club team near my city. He told me that I should think about trying out for the team. Some of my other friends who had been playing volleyball a couple more years than me had done it before and they seemed to love it. So, when the tryout date came, I decided to go for it. There were easily over 100 girls at the tryout when I showed up. I was overwhelmed, but a lot of my friends were there, so I just relaxed and tried my best. I made one of the two 14s division teams and I was ecstatic! My coaches Poje and Mr. Mason were fun, helpful, and perfect for this age group. This year, while I was playing volleyball both in school and on the club team outside of school, I was still playing basketball, taking piano and viola lessons, and I was in both the school orchestra and a youth orchestra based in Cleveland. It was a bit overwhelming, but I loved it.
Eventually, it all got to be too much though, and going into 9th grade, I decided to give up basketball. It was sad to let it go, but I was never good at it anyway and I didn’t enjoy it as much as volleyball, so it wasn’t that hard of a decision.
In the 9th grade, I tried out for the high school team. My hometown of Mentor, Ohio is very large and sports are a big deal. At the time, we had 3 junior high schools, and students from these 3 schools would go to the same high school (Mentor High). There were about 800 students in my graduating class at Mentor. The problem with a junior high school is that it is grades 7 through 9, and if you want to try out for any high school sports, you have to somehow make it to the high school on your own for practices. I was obviously too young to drive at the time, and both of my parents worked full-time so it was extremely tough to make this work. My friends on my club team from Mentor decided that if we made the team up at the high school, we would work something out.
I remember going to open gyms the summer leading up to 9th grade, and I remember the head coach, Mr. Woodman, always joking with me and asking me who I was and where I came from. I was so intimidated by him and the whole program at Mentor High. Our high school had won districts for the past 17 years, and had recently been to the state tournament. I was scared and didn’t know if I could live up to that expectation. With the end of summer workouts came high school tryouts. Four of my friends and I (Jenna Golic, Rachel Ritt, Kristin Baker, and Jessica Foreman) made the team together. Between all of our parents deciding to take turns driving around our 3 schools to pick us up for practice, we somehow made our first year playing volleyball at the high school work out. Game days were the best, because we got to wear our high school jerseys during the day at our junior highs. We thought we were so cool; it makes me laugh looking back on it.
I improved a lot during my 9th grade school season and was ready once again for Junior Olympic (club) tryouts at Eastside. This year, I knew what to expect and I wasn’t as nervous. I ended up making the top team with one of my favorite coaches. Coach Deb Suba was absolutely amazing. She was the first coach to truly yell at me and put me in my place. I couldn’t get away with anything. Of all of the years I have played volleyball, my 15s year still stands out as being one of the most incredible seasons of my life. We were by no means the most skilled team in the area, but I truly believe that we were the definition of what it means to be a real team. Everything flowed on the court. There was no drama, our families all loved one another, and everyone was there to back up the other one both in the gym and outside of it.
*Our Dad Fan Club*
*The Lake Catholic and Mentor girls with Suba*
By the end of the season, we had qualified for nationals in the open division. This is a huge deal in club volleyball. We were ranked as one of the top teams in the nation. That’s pretty exciting news when you’re 15 years old.
*Newspaper Article about ECJ 15*
During this time I was on top of the world with my team, however, there was a slight problem that I had been trying to avoid all season. I had absolutely no idea at the beginning of my 15s year that we would be nationally ranked by the end of it. I had auditioned for an international youth symphony orchestra out of Michigan prior to the start of the season. I got a call saying that I made the orchestra that would be going on tour in Europe the following summer. I had to decide quickly whether or not to accept the invitation. It was super hard to decide between the possibility of qualifying for nationals, and a 100% guarantee of going on tour in France, Austria, and Germany. I came to the conclusion that the orchestra was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that I couldn’t pass it up.
So when we qualified for nationals, I was overwhelmed with joy, but also a bit devastated at the same time. In my opinion, this is what happens when you commit to too many things. It’s awesome to be super busy and a part of several different events, but sometimes you end up letting someone down and it’s hard. My teammates were really happy for me that I would be going to Europe, but at the same time, I knew I had let them down. To my girls from that year, I want you to know that nothing will ever top that volleyball season and I will never forget the memories we had together.
Eventually the tour with the Blue Lake International Youth Symphony Orchestra arrived, and it was time to go to Michigan for a week of 8 hours of practicing with them every day before we left to fly overseas. The 3 weeks that I was with this group was magical and it absolutely changed my life for the better, but that’s a story for another time.
*Rehearsal in Austria*
When I got back from going on tour and missing almost all of the volleyball summer workouts through my high school, I was extremely out of shape. We had to run a mile in under 8 minutes every year for tryouts, and I’m pretty sure I made it in 7 minutes and 59 seconds that year. It took me about an hour to recover as well. Eating delicious food and desserts in Europe and then practicing your instrument while sitting in a chair for hours at a time doesn’t exactly help you to get in shape. Volleyball was a struggle for me my entire sophomore year. I made the varsity team as a sophomore which isn’t the easiest thing to do at Mentor High, but things just weren’t clicking like they had before I left for Europe.
During/after my 15s year, I remember getting my first letters of interest from the University of Oregon and the University of Pittsburgh. After that, letters started arriving from all over the country. At the time, I wanted to be a pharmacist, so I decided that if the university didn’t have a pharmacy program, I wouldn’t be interested. WOW….dumbest thing ever. Do you know how many division 1 schools have pharmacy programs? There are about 80 of them. Lucky for me, PITT was one of them. I had visited the school twice, and fell in love with it. The campus is beautiful, I liked the coach, and the academics and pharmacy program were top-notch.
It was time to let go of one more thing in order to be able to focus more on volleyball. Full-scholarships for music are extremely rare, whereas with volleyball, there are more available. Even with that being said, according to several articles, one from CBS news states that only "about 2 percent of high school athletes win sports scholarships every year at NCAA colleges and universities." I gave up playing in the youth orchestra that I was with in Cleveland, but still had the one at school to be a part of. Club season came, and I decided to try out for a new club called Cleveland Volleyball Company (CVC). They had a history of sending their players to colleges all over the United States to play on scholarship at the collegiate level. Some of my teammates from the ‘15s year’ that we always talk about did the same, but many of us ended up on different teams and it was a bit of a nightmare. My 16s club season was, to put it simply, awful, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I learned some valuable information from my coach at the time, but most of the team just wasn’t on the same page.
During this club season, my AP biology teacher, Mr. Butler, approached Jenna and me about high jumping for the track team. We accepted the offer and started going to practices. I wish he would have told me that I would also be running sprints and hurdles! However, I’m glad he persuaded me to join. It got me into really good shape and I was ready for anything. It was just the motivation I needed to play volleyball, a sport I was actually good at, at a high level again.
Junior year and Varsity tryouts were just around the corner, and I invested everything I had into volleyball and the AP and honors classes I was taking. Mr. Woodman and Mr. Scherlacher pushed me really hard. I can still hear Mr. Scherlacher’s voice in my head every time I didn’t attempt to close a block. He truly made me into the blocker that I am today, and I am forever grateful to him. Junior year was pretty much in line with the 15s club season. We won districts and regionals (5 set match which finished 16-14 against Solon in the fifth set), sending us to the state tournament!!! This is what so many athletes dream of growing up, and I was no exception to this dream.
*The State Tournament in Dayton, Ohio*
We were complete underdogs at the State tournament being the only public school team in the Final Four. We ended up losing, but the experience of going to the state tournament is something I will always cherish. To some of my teammates from that year: Jenna Golic (whom I’ve known since I was about 8 years old playing softball together), Kathleen Cox, Rachael Ritt and Tia Corder, thanks for still loving me and hanging out with me when I come home a few days each year. I cannot wait to see you.
Just like with every school season, the end means that club tryouts are just around the corner. I really wanted and needed to be on a great team to help get more looks from different colleges. That is when I decided to try out for Cleveland Volleyball Company’s 18s team, the top team at the club. I was one year too young, but you are always allowed to play up, not down. I had seen them practicing at the other end of the gym the previous year. Their practices were super hard but I loved watching how intense they were. Sometimes you have to just throw yourselves into situations to make yourself a better player, and that’s just what I did. Troy Dixon and Cass Dixon were running the tryout for the 18s team and would be the coaches like they had been for many years. I worked my butt off at this tryout. I mean it. I had never wanted something so badly in my life at this point. When they both told me that I had made the team, there aren’t enough words to explain how happy I was.
Cass and Troy’s practices may have been the hardest volleyball practices (outside of conditioning with D Love at Clemson) that I have ever experienced. I have never been screamed at so much in my entire life and I still have nightmares about some of the training sessions. We had one conditioning exercise called the 4x4 that made me want to cry just about every time we did it. My inhaler was always close by due to the several asthma attacks it gave me. I never really needed to use it until practices with this team. One time, Troy even took away all of our gear that had CVC on it because he thought we were embarrassing the club and didn’t deserve to look like a team. We couldn’t get our stuff back until we proved that we were worthy of it. In the end, the season went well and we qualified for nationals which were being held in Dallas, Texas that year. Troy was the toughest, but best coach I have ever had.
*CVC at Nationals in Texas*
Throughout the season, I had slowly been visiting colleges and keeping in contact with some coaches. After a lot of thinking, I called up the head coach at PITT and verbally committed to the program because I was too young to officially sign. About a day after I committed to PITT, the coach got fired. I was in a tough spot. I really liked the coach that I had committed to and now everything was up in the air. The new coach didn’t have to honor my commitment because it was just verbal, so I felt really lost. I started going on visits to other schools, but none really clicked with me. I told my one friend, Lacy Hayes, about what had happened. I met Lacy when we were playing for USA High Performance together in Florida one summer. She said that her college team (Clemson University) needed a middle and that she would talk to the coaches about me.
*Lacy (Shlace) and Me*
Sure enough, I got some information in the mail, started chatting with the coaches via email, and kept in contact through the phone. I’m not going to lie, I had never heard of Clemson before. I was wondering where this school whose colors are orange and purple is located. When I found out it was in South Carolina, that their academics were great, and they had a successful volleyball team, I was sold to go down for a visit. I remember asking Korrinn (the assistant coach at Clemson) if I could come down in a few months, and she said, “How about next weekend?” I laughed, but then it actually happened. Korrinn, thank you for being so persistent! I was on the campus for about 30 seconds and I knew that that is where I wanted to live for the next 4 years of my life. People always say that when you visit a school, you know whether or not it’s the one for you. I now knew what this meant. By the end of my visit, Jolene (the head coach) offered me a full-scholarship to play for her and be a Clemson Tiger. I was speechless. I ended up committing while I was still there because there was no need to wait.
*Signing Day with Baker, Jenna, Mr. Scherlacher, and Mr. Woodman*
I remember calling Troy and Cass while I was still in Clemson and telling them the good news. And since I’m on that topic, I just wanted to give them a quick shout out. Ever since they became my coaches, they have become like a second family to me. They have been there for me with so many different things that it would take way too long to type out. There were times where I seriously questioned whether or not I even wanted to play in college anymore, but they made me believe in myself more than anyone when it came to volleyball. My parents are the most supportive people in the entire world, but sometimes you just need a coach to reason with you. There were times when I was at Clemson when I didn’t think I would make it, so I would just call them. They would yell at me and tell me to get it together, and I would listen. They even surprised me and Hannah Brenner by showing up to Clemson to see one of our games. That’s pretty amazing if you ask me. Hannah and I were teammates on CVC’s 18s team. She also became my teammate at Clemson the following year. I am so thankful for Troy, Cass, and their kids, Marin and Graham, who I still see at least once every year. You four are the best and I cannot thank you enough!
After committing to Clemson in the summer going into my senior year, everything was back on track. We won districts for the 21st year in a row, Mr. Woodman retired, and I was ready for my final club season with Troy and Cass at CVC. I signed up for football conditioning through my high school. It’s a class that only the football players signed up for, but the head coach of the football team allowed me to join the class to prepare for training at Clemson. Nothing like tire flips, sleds with people sitting on them, sprints, and maxing out with weights to brighten your day. A big thanks to Wally and Coach Triv for letting me do that!
*Senior Volleyball Class: Rae, Foreman, Kitty, Bake, J. Go, Herbert, Britt*
*Senior season at MHS*
I think it’s ironic that my senior year of high school I did my senior project/internship with a pharmacist at the Cleveland Clinic, and I didn’t like it at all. So much for throwing away all of those letters from colleges that didn’t have pharmacy schools. However, I did get to see an open-heart surgery while I was there, and I loved it. I decided that I would just start college by majoring in biology and possibly look into becoming an anesthesiologist. As a result, 'Biological Sciences' is what I chose to put down as my major when filling out the entrance forms to Clemson.
Outside of practices, school, and football conditioning, I did weight training and agilities with Rich Zawack at ADC (Athletic Development Corporation). I’m forever thankful to him as well, because he helped me to become semi-prepared for the strength training that awaited me at Clemson. I truly don’t think I would have been able to play as a freshman if he didn’t help me to become stronger before leaving for school. Thank you so much Rich!
Before I knew it, it was time to leave for summer school and head to Clemson. Playing volleyball at Clemson for 4 years really was a dream come true. There is something unique about Clemson that will always have a special place in my heart. Through the ups and downs of volleyball, changing my major 4 times, trying out for the USA National Team in Colorado Springs and having Coach Karch Kiraly (the greatest men’s volleyball player in the history of the USA) shake my hand telling me I was doing a good job, finding Jesus and getting baptized, and graduating, in my opinion, from the best university in the world, Clemson helped bring everything together. I could talk about volleyball at Clemson for days, so I will save you the trouble of having to read more than this already ridiculously long post.
*Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center*
Bottom line, the teammates and coaches that I have had at Clemson will always be my family. I love them and miss them every day. Once a Tiger, always a Tiger. To Jolene and Jodi, thank you for working with me at practice every day and for believing in me enough to put me on the court. One day at practice, Troy had us write down a goal we wanted to achieve when we went to college. I wrote “To be a starting freshman.” That goal/dream came true because of you guys.
To D Love, as much as I hated your workouts, you always had my back and you were and are the best strength trainer out there. Anyone who has the opportunity to work with you is one lucky individual. Thanks for everything you did for me at Clemson and for still yelling at me and telling me to get it together even when we’re not in the same state or country.
*Hanging out with D Love at the soccer game*
As my senior year of college was coming to an end, I wasn’t ready to be done with volleyball yet, so I looked into playing professionally overseas. One offer that intrigued me was with a team out of Lyon, France. I accepted the job and signed the contract that they sent to my agent. I was supposed to leave to start training with the team sometime in September. I liked that because then I would be able to go home after graduating and see my friends and family in Ohio for a little bit (a rare occurrence these days). I got a call a few weeks before graduation that the team was having some issues and they wouldn’t be honoring my contract anymore. I thought to myself, “Why is it that every time I decide to commit to a new life changing decision, something happens!?” But this time, I wasn’t as overwhelmed as when I found out about PITT’s coach leaving. I knew that God’s plan was better than my plan, so I trusted him with whatever came next.
My agent said that he wanted me to come over to Europe on August 9th, however, there was a slight problem with that: it was the day I was graduating from Clemson. He said the 10th would be okay, so I flew to Slovenia the day after I graduated to try and get picked up by a team somewhere in Europe. So much for seeing my friends and family back in Ohio… I got to train in Slovenia with some other Americans, both men and women, who were trying to do the same thing. I made so many friends during those 2 weeks! It’s really cool because a lot of us were able to help one another get through our seasons abroad. An 8 month season is very long, and having friends who are going through exactly what you are going through is really comforting.
*Friends from Slovenia*
Eventually my friend Olivia (pictured above) and I were sent to Slovakia to train with a team there. That’s when my agent, Nick, emailed me and said that he had a team for me in Sweden. I was really excited because one of my teammates in China, Britney Brown, had played in Sweden the previous year, and she absolutely loved it. I remember seeing her pictures and being like, “I want to play there,” and now I was going to be doing just that. When I arrived in Sweden, I got a similar feeling to the one that I got when I first arrived on Clemson’s campus. The town was small, but beautiful and special in its own way. I met the girls I would be playing with later that night, and they were nothing but nice and welcoming. We have become extremely close, and it’s going to be really hard to leave them when it’s time to head back to the States.
*Me and Britney at the Great Wall in Beijing*
After 8 months of playing volleyball in Sweden, I feel like a totally different person. I was forced to grow up a lot here. You have a language barrier, a wide range of ages on your team, you’re way out of your comfort zone, and your family and friends are halfway around the world. As hard as it may have been, it was absolutely where I needed to be and I am so thankful I had this time to grow. For those who are interested, we finished both the regular season and the playoffs in 3rd place.
*Playing Professionally in Sweden*
Volleyball has literally taken me all over the United States, and all over the world. Not only has it allowed me to travel, but it has allowed me to build friendships in several countries, friendships that will last for the rest of my life. I played in Beijing, China 2 summers ago:
Last May I studied abroad in Africa and I was able to play sit volleyball with some university students studying in Tanzania:
Since coming to Europe to play professionally, I have been in Slovenia, Austria, Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. And now that my season is over, it allowed me to travel to Istanbul, Turkey to visit my former Clemson teammates, Cansu and Serenat. Starting on May 6th, I will be meeting my friends Emily, Daniel, and Shea in Paris, France. We will be backpacking around Europe until May 29th. I cannot wait!
It’s pretty surreal that God allowed me to be good at this sport to help me achieve so many things for His good. Being an athlete has opened so many doors for me, and I am honored that God blessed me with this talent in order to be able to do everything I have in the life he has given me.
I have a quote journal that I have been keeping up with since arriving in Sweden. One quote that has stuck with me more than anything is the one that follows:
“The things I was allowed to experience, the people I was able to call friends, teammates, mentors, coaches and opponents, the travel, all of it are far more than anything I ever thought possible in my lifetime.” –Curt Shilling
There are so many more people I could have talked about in this post and I am sorry if you feel left out. It’s overwhelming how many supportive people I have in my life. Please know that I love you and haven’t forgotten about you. To everyone out there who has helped me on this long volleyball journey, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.