Final volleyball tourney leaves lasting impact

Two weeks ago, my 18-year-old sister, Annie, and her Northern Lights club volleyball teammates competed at the Girls Junior National Championships for volleyball at the Minneapolis Convention Center, a gathering of the top club volleyball teams in the nation. 

Halfway through the first match, Annie landed awkwardly from her outside position in the front row. A half hour later, our family was on our way to an orthopedic specialist for imaging, where we found out she sustained a high ankle sprain and multiple bone bruises.   

For the past six years, Annie’s played for Northern Lights out of Burnsville. For six years, she and one of my parents, usually my mom, Jodi, commuted from their home in Albert Lea to practice three days a week as well as league play or a tournament nearly every weekend for eight months of the year. 

After six years, she spent her final tournament on the bench in a leg boot. It’s disappointing and sad – there’s no way around it. My parents were upset, my brothers felt terrible, I cried for her. Six years of hard work and dedication, and her last memory is sitting on the sidelines. But I think she’d tell you that, despite her injuries over the years, including a torn-up shoulder, broken rib and two concussions, it was worth it.

On day two, Annie and her teammate, Sami Flattum, a 6-foot-3 future Kansas State Wildcat and right side hitter who tore a ligament in her right foot just two days earlier, sat on the bench together. The duo spent four days in Minneapolis cheering on their teammates, keeping team statistics and offering advice during timeouts. Annie and Sami were the “crippled couple” who cheered their squad on to a fifth-place finish, pretty stellar for nationals. 

Later that night, our family spent one last evening with the Northern Lights “family” at a teammate’s home in Mendota Heights. It was a final farewell to her 18-2’s teammates, coaches and parents as well as the director, Curt Glesmann.

After nearly nine months of practice and tournaments and two consecutive weeks of hotel sleepovers before competition, the girls still didn’t want to leave each other. They huddled together, hugged, reminisced and hugged some more. While the team played volleyball in the pool, Annie and Sami laughed at them from lounge chairs on the deck.  

This team was special. Not just because a majority of the girls are going on to play Division I or II ball, but because they have a common bond in their dedication to their sport and to each other. As future University of Minnesota-Duluth defensive specialist Kelly Madison said, “It’s like you all are my boyfriends, and you’re all breaking up with me at once.”

I’ve heard every side to the argument that club sports are overrated, that kids burn out and that the parents are crazy. But that can happen anywhere, anytime and on any team, including school ball. Some of Annie’s teammates were multi-sport athletes and many are involved in different activities at their respective high schools. That is the coolest part of this experience — meeting athletes and coaches from around the state. 

I met one of my best friends, Jenny Wulff, playing club volleyball in Rochester eight years ago, and I hung out with two other former teammates from Minnesota One Volleyball at a grass tournament in River Falls last month. These bonds last a lifetime.

On the other end, I also encourage playing multiple sports. It works different muscle groups and gives athletes a mental break from one sport to the next. I’m all for school pride, for working with high school teammates in the offseason to improve as a team during school season, not to mention that club sports are a financial commitment. However, they are becoming increasingly more affordable as off-season play becomes more common, which opens up options for young athletes. These options create more decisions for parents. 

What it comes down to, and parents, I’m talking to you, is what the athlete wants. Know your child, listen to them. If they are passionate about more than one sport, encourage them to not specialize right away. It’s not for everyone.

Club volleyball was a great fit for Annie, and she is ecstatic to continue playing at Gustavus Adolphus College this fall. She used to play basketball and softball as well, but she knows her passions and put it like this: “I love volleyball enough to play it all the time. I wouldn’t shorten that time for two other sports I just don’t have the heart for.”

Whatever your athlete chooses, be supportive. 

For the past six years, I traveled with family to watch Annie play in the AAU nationals in Orlando three times, to Omaha for the Presidents Day Classic every year and twice to Denver for the Crossroads tourney. And when Annie and I shared our last post-game treat last week while elevating her injured foot at a Coldstone Creamery, we agreed: She made the right choice for her.

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