When the recruiting letters started coming in the mail, Carly Nolan could hardly contain herself.
Getting looks from top-tier colleges is what elite club volleyball players chase from the time they can serve the ball over the net. Nolan, who played outside hitter for Sky High 16 Black this past season, was practically born into volleyball. Nolan’s mother, Mary, was a school record-breaking setter at Texas Tech. Together, the Nolans have filled out questionnaires from schools such as Notre Dame, Northwestern, Iowa and Cincinnati.
Nolan just began her junior season at Crystal Lake South as a top prospect. Like most recruits, Nolan never is really certain which players college coaches are watching when they stand alongside courts at club tournaments with iPads, taking notes.
“It’s nerve-racking. It’s better when you don’t see (recruiters) until after a game and you know you played well,” Nolan said. “It gives you that extra boost though, because you know you have to play well.”
Iowa assistant coach Ben Boldt frequents the sidelines at club tournaments. Boldt generally will tell club coaches who he is watching, but the girls almost never know. Coaches like the anonymity. NCAA recruiting rules also prohibit coaches from talking to freshman and sophomore players, and from talking to recruits during “quiet periods.”
“A big part of our job,” said Boldt, “is in the follow-up after these tournaments.”
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Amy Kaplan Johnson was a three-sport athlete at Cary-Grove – an exception in today’s era of one-dimensional athletes. Johnson landed a volleyball scholarship to Kentucky without setting foot on a club volleyball court because C-G coach Patty Langanis invited college coaches to summer practices and matches. Johnson refused to quit, playing basketball, softball or participating in track.
At the time, Jamie Gordon was the coach at Kentucky recruiting Johnson and told her later he was attracted to her obvious love for the sport.
“When I think back on high school, I think about how excited I was to go from one sport to the next,” said Johnson, who now coaches in Crystal Lake Central’s volleyball and track programs. “I was never sick of volleyball, ever.
“Everyone else was ready for it to be over because they had played since they were 12. Because I was going from sport to sport, I never lost my love for it.”
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Some volleyball addicts do walk away completely, but many never can.
When Sarah Cullen finished playing at DePaul – a scholarship she secured through Fusion and at Sycamore High School – she immediately looked for coaching positions. After a stint at the University of Pittsburgh, Cullen moved to Georgetown to lead the Hoyas’ recruiting efforts.
Cullen started with Fusion around the time the club separated from Sky High. That’s when Cullen realized club volleyball transcends uniforms, locations, coaches and teams. Devotees truly work from the inside out to ensure volleyball is unlike any other club sport.
“If volleyball didn’t come up in [family] conversation, it wasn’t normal,” Cullen said. “Even now, when I’m in Chicago recruiting, my mom will come with me because it makes her happy to walk into these gyms with courts filled with girls focused on a common goal.”
Cullen experienced culture shock the first time she walked into a large convention center. So did her grandfather, who took a long, pointed look around.
“He turned to me and said, ‘I can’t believe I would have died and never experienced this,’ ” Cullen said.
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When she was in sixth grade, Ali Frantti sat down at the computer and typed an email to Russ Rose.
The Richmond-Burton senior outside hitter knew at a very young age that she wanted to go to Penn State to play for the Nittany Lions’ storied volleyball program. Rose never returned Frantti’s email, but she ended up on his radar anyway.
Frantti credits the training she’s received at Club Fusion since middle school for her rise to the national spotlight and ultimately the Penn State scholarship she earned last year.
“We’ve learned everything we know from these coaches,” Frantti said. “I hope people look up to all the girls at this club because this (the scholarships) is all Club Fusion.”
Rose knows the McHenry County area, and Illinois in general, is one-stop shopping when it comes to recruits. The area is so rich in volleyball talent that Rose and his fellow NCAA coaches can come for a single tournament and see enough players to fill a long list of needs.
“Certainly, now there are really big clubs like Fusion and Sports Performance where you have hundreds of kids playing, and you’ve got young kids playing,” Rose said. “They have to be able to pay for facilities like those and that’s how this has become a business. It’s a big business. It’s a costly business, for parents and for kids. Of course, that pays off if kids get scholarships.”