When Bailey Madrzyk was just days old, her mother Kelly laid her to sleep in a crib lined with tiny volleyballs bearing stickers from various colleges and universities.
Kelly’s former club volleyball teammates from 2nd City, a now defunct program based on Chicago’s South Side, had started the tradition years earlier. They wanted their children to grow up like they had, with the same type of strong friendships shaped in hotel rooms and on makeshift courts inside convention centers.
For kids like Bailey, now 12, volleyball is a rite of passage.
“We recruit early,” said Kelly, who runs the Volley Kids program at Sky High Volleyball in Crystal Lake. “That’s what it is.”
In McHenry County, club volleyball is almost a religion for hundreds of girls and their families. Nineteen miles separate Marengo-based Club Fusion and Sky High – the top two ranked teams in terms of securing college scholarships for their players, said Rich Kern, who runs the club volleyball site RichKern.com and tracks scholarship disbursement among club players nationwide.
Both have created – and sustained – a culture of winning that has carried over to the area’s high school teams. In 24 years, Sky High has won eight national championships. In a little more than a decade, Fusion has won seven – including three this year.
Both clubs have done it from the inside out, and they’ve relied on those like the Madrzyks, who cannot imagine life without club volleyball.
Shortly after Bailey learned to walk, Kelly placed a weighted balloon in the middle of her living room. Bailey would swat at the balloon, replicating an arm motion constantly repeated to young players at Sky High.
Right, left, jump. Right, left, jump. Right, left, jump.
“I had her doing spike approaches at 3,” Kelly said. “Now, when she comes here to do it, she’s like, ‘Wow, Mom, I knew how to do that!’
“I wonder why.”
Simone Lee swears it takes about 90 minutes to get to Club Fusion’s training facility on Route 20 from her home in Menomonee Falls, Wis. That’s probably without traffic or counting red lights along Illinois Route 43.
Lee, a senior outside hitter at Menomonee Falls High School, didn’t consider the commute when she decided last year to quit playing for the Milwaukee Sting club to try out for Fusion. She felt the coaching and culture at Fusion would be reimbursement for the more than 160-mile round-trip she drives three or four times each week.
“It’s not a big deal to me,” said Lee, who has a full-ride scholarship to Penn State, where she will play alongside two Fusion 17 Black teammates, setter Bryanna Weiskircher from Boylan and outside hitter Ali Frantti from Richmond-Burton.
“As long as I’m getting better, there’s no duration of time that would keep me away.”
Lee is not an anomaly. Fusion General Manager Eric Schulze has seen girls drive almost three hours, from the Bloomington-Normal area, to train with Fusion. Sky High has attracted athletes from as far away as the Milwaukee suburbs.
Ciara Capezio, who drives to Fusion from Williams Bay, Wis., several times a week doesn’t mind the time spent on the road.
“I’d never really been coached, because they would push the good kids aside,” said Capezio, who will play at Iowa State. “(Fusion) actually works with you to make sure you get better at things.”
Club volleyball is designed for that purpose. The high school game tends to be slower, while on the club courts, skills are sharpened and players are noticed by college recruiters.
“High school is about having fun and playing for your school,” said recent Prairie Ridge graduate Caitlin Brauneis, who will play at Georgetown. “I come [to Fusion] to get better.”
Over the years, club volleyball has become known as the vehicle for girls’ college scholarships.
Prolonged success often leads to assumptions about what comes after all the years of practice, matches and tournaments. There’s a danger in that mentality, Schulze warns. The accessibility to scholarships is in sales pitches, but it shouldn’t be the selling point for families.
“When you’re landing kids full-ride scholarships to have every dime of your education paid for just for participating in this sport, you’re going to attract attention,” Schulze said. “I think that drives the decision and, I’ll be honest, I wish that wasn’t the case.”
Sky High co-owner Sherry Harris agreed.
“I look for the kids that love it,” Harris said. “I’ll go up to the parents and tell them I have a program for them. I talk to them about their immediate goals. Eventually, I’ll talk about the scholarship opportunities, but you can’t promise anything. That’s wrong.”
At 11 or 12, kids are not thinking about money for college, even if their parents are. But at 16 or 17, some girls burn out. Then, it might become about money.
When she was young, Mary Kate Manning couldn’t wait to play. But in the thick of the recruiting process, Manning’s commitment to Fusion became overwhelming. Thinking she was missing things her Marian Central classmates were experiencing, Manning quit her elite 17 Black team and just played at Marian.
Manning regained her social life, evenings to study without cramming and weekend mornings to sleep in. Within months, Manning missed the club scene. But the more she thought about returning, the more she wondered if it was for the right reasons – a conversation she had with her former coaches before her return.
“When I quit, I think I kind of offended them,” Manning said. “They asked me, ‘Do you really want to play because you like the game, or do you need money for college?’ I said I loved the game, but really I needed money for college.”
Manning did return and felt her 18s year was the most fun she had.
The lifestyle, though, doesn’t change. Players either adjust and love it or decide to walk away.
“It’s so intense,” Manning said. “Practices every day, you travel a lot, you miss out on a lot. (And) it’s very political. You love your teammates so much, but … when a girl steals your position, you can start to dislike that girl for that reason alone.”
The Indianapolis Convention Center doors swung open in the late 1990s and Mike and Marie Meyers glimpsed at the next decade of their lives.
Volleyball nets zig-zagged across thousands of square feet of concrete covered by rubber matting. Metal poles saluted the Crystal Lake couple from every angle. Small figures with knee pads and spandex shorts darted around cheap folding chairs, grabbing volleyballs to practice serves.
“It was crazy,” said Marie of the family’s first national qualifying tournament. “We had no idea.”
When it became clear their four daughters loved the sport and wanted to play, club volleyball became the Meyers’ vacations, entertainment, the source of many friendships and a tangible point of pride in their children.
“You kind of get addicted to it,” Mike Meyers said. “We have friends whose kids play soccer and they go to tournaments and stuff, (and) our son plays basketball and we go to those tournaments, but it’s nothing like this.”
Nicole, the youngest daughter, has two years of club remaining before the family’s time on the travel volleyball circuit will end. It’s a thought Mike and Marie try to have only sparingly.
“We’ll just sit across the table and stare at one another,” Mike said. “We’ll do some of the things we’ve always put off. We’ll be able to hopefully travel, visit them in college.”
Marie isn’t so sure.
“We’ll see,” she said. “Maybe it will be something else.”
Sometimes, Patty Langanis wonders how the players on her Sky High 16 Black team do it.
High school is difficult enough, but club volleyball players balance another set of priorities. Practices are long, tournaments are nearly every weekend, and elite players play volleyball for all but two or three weeks each year.
From her place on the sideline, Langanis wonders if she and fellow club coaches are asking for too much.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘What are we doing to these kids?’” said Langanis, who also coaches Cary-Grove’s varsity team. “Some of these kids could have been great softball players or basketball players, but they’ve become one-dimensional so early. It concerns me, because you see kids get very good at one sport and you don’t see the all-around athletes anymore.”
Some of Langanis’ players have made the choice to focus solely on volleyball, while others juggled it with basketball, softball or track seasons.
Either way, athletes must love what they are doing, or it won’t work. Langanis said Moorehead State coach Jamie Gordon, with whom Langanis has developed a friendship, has a keen sense of which players are playing club for the right reason.
“He can tell right away which kids are into it and still have a passion for the game and which kids are burned out,” Langanis said. “I think, with the intensity, that’s what we’re losing sometimes: the players who really have a passion and a love for the game.”
That intensity swallowed Emma Hussey whole. By the time the former Marian Central outside hitter had reached the end of her third high school season, she was tired. The thought of setting foot in Sky High’s gym again made her a little queasy.
“Volleyball consumed me,” Hussey said. “If you want to play in college, then club volleyball is for you. But if I had kids, I wouldn’t recommend they play club past the 15s or 16s level because it gets so intense.
“I’d also want them to experience a lot of other things and other sports, and with club volleyball I don’t feel like you can do that.”
Many club coaches insists girls can be multisport athletes and play club volleyball. Most players, though, insist it isn’t possible. Not, at least, if scholarships are the end goal.
The talent has become incredible, and it starts young.
“I hosted a coaching camp in Texas (recently) and there were little kids there, kids who will be graduating in the year 2026, so they’re about 5,” said Russ Rose, head coach at Penn State. “Here are these little kids, who can pass, set, serve. It was amazing. It was really something to see. The business is changing. I think the model is changing.”
Cars lined both sides of partially shaded Exchange Drive that dead ends at Sky High’s Crystal Lake facility. Girls shifted underneath the trees, trying to hide from the shards of hot, mid-afternoon sunlight. Sweat-soaked clothing fluttered from the branches, trying to dry.
Parents filtered in and out of the gym, whispering about matches that went awry and planning the rest of the evening. It’s a summer Sunday ritual for most club volleyball families – assess what’s next, regroup, repeat.
On this Sunday night, 7-year-old Lizzy Williams from Huntley runs through drills during Sky High’s Volley Kids program. Williams grabs a quick drink of water, her face flushed from playing Simon Says and practicing serving – a thrill since the ball just started clearing the 7-foot-4-inch net.
The pigtailed first-grader doesn’t really care what the next drill will be. Just being on the court with her college-bound coaches, Cary-Grove middle hitter Mallory Wilczynski and Prairie Ridge setter Mackenzi Humm, is a rush.
Some of the 7-, 8- and 9-year-old kids start playing club volleyball because their parents sign them up for the 10-week Sunday night program. Sometimes the kids’ friends introduce them to club volleyball.
But sometimes McHenry County itself, its reputation for breeding elite club and high school players, entices kids as young as Williams.
A few nights earlier, Williams and her mother had watched the older girls play. Williams sat mesmerized by the high school players’ skills and the speed of the game. When asked if that would be her someday, Williams did not hesitate.