Times Sports Editor
The warm summer months mean vacation time or even the opportunity to work or lounge by the pool for most adolescents. However, for members of the Crossroads of America (COA) 12-and-under Red volleyball team, the summer means a chance to compete at the Junior Olympics.
The travel volleyball club, based out of Terre Haute, has continued to build its success each year and gives area girls the chance to raise their level of ability against top competition around the country and even outside the United States.
The 12-Red team has a large roster of players in grades fourth-through sixth-grades made up of girls from 12 different elementary and middle schools. Included in that mix are seven girls from Clay County Schools.
North Clay Middle School is represented by sixth-graders Audrey Clark and Shelbi Morris with Van Buren fifth-grader Whitney Halfhill, Staunton fourth-grader Ashley Heck, fourth grade Jackson Township student Morgan Stearley, Jackson fifth-grader McKenzi Kumpf and Clay City Elementary's Emmie Kittle representing the area.
Head coach Brian Payne has modeled his teams along the lines of one of the state's top club programs in Northern Indiana.
"There are typically about 18 girls on the roster, so at times I split the team into two groups so they can all get playing time," Payne said. "Some of the girls are put on the team for developmental purposes because they are young, so they can be better prepared when they come back to the team the following year. This helps create a core of girls who come back to the team year after year. This idea was modeled after the Munciana Volleyball Club."
The COA program has come a long way since its humble beginnings nearly a decade ago, but the high school programs in the Wabash Valley have been reaping the rewards for several years.
According to Payne, the program began in 1999 with fewer than 20 girls and has now gone over 200 players spread over 13 teams. The club, created to help further players' skills at an earlier age, has had benefits outside of the sport as well.
"We obviously want to improve their skills in volleyball, but we also want to further their coordination, agility, and other athletic skills so they can be successful in other sports as well," Payne said. "Hopefully the skills they gain from our club will help them to making their middle and high school teams and to make them better as well. We also try to provide the girls with opportunities to play in college if their abilities grow to that level."
In fact, five players from COA have signed to play collegiate volleyball the past two seasons.
The travel schedule can be pretty hectic over the spring and summer season as proven by the 12-Red team.
The team qualified for the Junior Olympics barely a month ago after winning the Indiana Regional Qualifier. Last week the team saw its toughest competition to date, playing in the AAU National Tourney in Florida.
Despite some tough results in the tourney, Payne feels that the experience will be one that pays dividends at the Junior Olympics in Dallas, Texas from June 26-30, and farther down the line in the players' growth.
"The AAU Nationals was actually tougher than the tourney coming up," said Payne. "There are many teams from Puerto Rico, where the girls play that sport exclusively and are much more mature as players than our girls. I continued to push the kids hard throughout it thought because they needed to get past the fear factor and realize that they can play if they just fight back."
The lesson apparently stuck with the team as they rebounded from a winless final day of pool play to finish 32nd overall in the 45-team field.
The squad defeated Mava Blue from Kentucky, 25-16, 14-25, 15-12, in final bracket play before bowing out to a team from Puerto Rico, Maya Vol, 14-25, 26-24, 7-15.
To compete against teams that good, you must have a competitive spirit and the 'hate to lose attitude'. I think they girls started to discover it by the last day," Payne observed. "On the last day, the girls started to feel the success, and became much more seasoned."
Heading into next week's Junior Olympics, the 12-Red team has the benefit of a good seed after winning the Indiana Regional and earning the No. 1 seed. Payne remains realistic about his team's chances at winning the title, but his goals for the team go beyond simply just wins and losses.
"There will be teams from as far away as California and Puerto Rico, and while I doubt the team will win all their matches," Payne commented. "The focus is competing as hard as they can and being exposed to the best out there so they can take those experiences back to their school teams. This will be three out of the last four years the team has qualified for the tourney.
"I tell the girls all the time, to be the best, you play the best," said Payne. "It is not about having a perfect win-loss record, but to really play the best in order to know where to stand and where you need to go."
Payne has enjoyed his time as coach of this particular group of girls and believes that there is more success on the way for the players
"This is a good group of girls. They come from good families, are athletic, and will continue to grow in their skills and as a team as long as they stay together," Payne said. "This group of girls has been recruited by others outside the club to go elsewhere, but as long as they stay together, they will be just fine in the COA program. I have appreciated the help of my assistant coach as well; Kevin Kumpf from North Clay Middle School."
With seven players from Clay County making up a good portion of the 12 Red team, the future looks bright for the area volleyball programs.
"The Clay County girls are a good group that will someday help their high school team tremendously," Payne said. "Some of the talent there is definitely going to turn heads as they get older. They are disciplined, hard working, and becoming more competitive and composed each tourney day."