By Randy Sharer
Special to Illprepvb.com
People will go far in pursuit of an athletic dream.
Yet to be determined is how far it’s worth going.
For decades, the world of club volleyball has seen the “worth it” distance stretch to astonishing lengths for players hoping to land a college scholarship or merely improve as much as possible.
Name a club and chances are at some point in its history it’s had a player (or several) from more than an hour away.
Among the current long haulers are players such as Macomb’s Kennedy Adair and Rock Falls’ Maya Sands, who both commute 80 miles one-way to their clubs. Adair plays for Iowa Select in Davenport, Iowa, while Sands is with Sports Performance in Aurora.
Topping them both in frequent-commuter miles is Mendon Unity freshman Emma Hoing, who lives 10 miles north of Quincy and drives 135 miles one-way to train with the Rockwood Thunder Volleyball Club in St. Louis, Missouri.
“If you want to be the best, you have to play against and with the best,” Hoing explains. “My teammates and I push each other. It’s so much fun to play with girls who love the sport like I do.”
Hoing’s father and driver, Keith, estimates she logs 25,000 miles a season while attending three practices a week. That mileage doesn’t include tournament trips to Omaha, Kansas City and Indianapolis. The Hoings began these journeys two years ago and expect to continue until Emma graduates in 2024.
“I really want to play in college and I knew the Rockwood Thunder could help me with that,” said Hoing, a 5-foot-10 rightside and outside hitter who can jump and touch 9-6. “I cried when I got my first letter from a D1 school.”
Hoing’s Rockwood Thunder 15 Elite squad is ranked fifth nationally in the most recent AES Power Rankings after winning 69 of 77 matches for an .896 winning percentage. The team has qualified for the 2021 USAV Girls Junior National Championship in Las Vegas, Nevada, June 26-July 5.
“We are a really good team, so we take practice seriously,” said Hoing, who leaves for a weekday workout at 5:00 p.m. and may not return home until midnight.
Practice also takes a seven-hour bite out of her Sundays, “So it kind of ruins the day for much else,” she adds.
Hoing’s commute routine includes a fueling stop in Bowling Green, Missouri, where she visits Taco Bell to order a Crunchwrap Supreme, a Chicken Chipotle Melt and a large Baja Blast.
“I think the employees think we’re crazy because they see us so much,” Hoing says.
The Taco Bell staff isn’t alone in that regard.
“I hear people tell my parents they are crazy (for commuting so far),” Hoing said. “They always say I’m worth it. That is one of the things that motivates me.”
Hoing, who played one season for a club in Hannibal, Missouri, 25 miles away, tries to finish schoolwork before leaving for practice, but that’s not always possible.
“Last year was hard because I practiced after school until 5:00 p.m. and would go straight from practice to St. Louis,” she said. “I had to do a lot (of studying) in the car using my phone hotspot and my MacBook.”
Thankfully, the Hoings haven’t had any mechanical breakdowns or accidents during their volleyball commutes. Snow and fog, however, have made some trips a challenge.
Sands, a 5-7 junior libero/defensive specialist, does a lot of her own driving to Aurora unless she has homework or if the weather is bad, in which case her parents drive. More than once, the family has stayed in an Aurora hotel rather than risk a snowy drive home.
“I have had to learn how to manage my time and be very organized and prepared,” Sands says. “I try to look at assignments coming up in my classes, not only for the current week, but also for the weeks coming up. I try to work ahead if I can.
“Socially, I have obviously had to miss some things, but I have some great friends who understand my commitment to volleyball and know that I may not always be able to spend time with them.”
Adair, a 5-11 sophomore outside hitter who plays six rotations and can touch 9-11, says most friends don’t make a fuss about her long commutes because they play travel softball.
“However, I am sure I have the longest drive for practice,” added Adair, who joined Iowa Select last December when most sports in Illinois were postponed or cancelled.
There were three clubs within a 90-minute drive for Adair, who decided “Iowa was my only option.”
Per NCAA rules, Adair can begin talking to college coaches on June 15.
“The travel has been worth it because of all the (volleyball) touches,” said Adair, whose cousin played Division I volleyball and recommended she try to accumulate a million touches by the time she graduates from high school in order to earn a scholarship.
Sands began her career in third grade with the nearby No Limits Volleyball Club in Sterling. The past four years, she has practiced at Sports Performance three or four times a week.
“I can tell you that it has definitely been worth it,” she said. “I have not only become a better volleyball player, but have learned leadership, organization, commitment, dedication and what it means to be a part of something.”
Volleyball isn’t just a hobby to Sands, who has received several scholarship offers.
“I knew that in order for me to get the training and experience needed to play at the next level, I would need to commit myself to the sport,” she said.
Sands concedes she has sort of been pre-paying for college by trying to earn a scholarship through club volleyball, “But we also see this as an opportunity to play the game we love at a higher level.”
College coaches landing a long-distance commuter can reasonably assume they’re getting a dedicated player.
“You have to be very dedicated and passionate about the sport before you decide to travel up here because some days you will feel like giving up,” Sands said. “But you have to persevere and overcome the challenges that come with the long commute.”
Other long haulers: Among other long-distance players on the club circuit are Tuscola’s Kate Dean of Bloomington-based Illini Elite (75 miles one way), Effingham’s Samantha Urch and Jacy Boatman of Prime Time Volleyball Club in Champaign (84 miles), and Rockford’s VC United members Elaina Wamhoff of LaSalle (72), Delaney LeMay of Wauconda (55), Savannah Brandt of Pearl City (48), Mollie Hobson of McHenry (47), Emma Konie of Lake in the Hills (45) and Karina Simatos of Crystal Lake (45).
By Randy Sharer