INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The two teams playing in the 11 National Final Tuesday at the USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championships mounted an outstanding performance in front of hundreds of spectators. They served, passed and hit like girls years older.
Many of the girls in the match had already been playing for years, but that’s not necessarily true for all the teams in the youngest age group.
Take, for example, Oklahoma Peak 11-1 (Oklahoma Region), coached by U.S. Women’s National Sitting Team gold medalist Heather Erickson.
“Everything’s so new to them,” Erickson said shortly after the team had lost their fourth match. “My girls have never played volleyball before, minus one or two. The majority of them don’t even know the athletic culture, so a lot of what I do is teaching them fundamentals, teaching them how to not give up, how to fight. Teaching them how to be tired and still go through stuff. Then, on top of that, they’re so competitive, so it’s teaching them how not to get mad at themselves.”
Erickson, who has competed in three Paralympic Games and was the 2018 USA Volleyball Female Siting Player of the Year, has been coaching with Peak for seven years. It’s her fourth year coaching the 11s, and she enjoys being part of both the pinnacle of volleyball (the national team), and the seeds of the sport.
“I love that I can go compete on the sitting team and be that gold medal team, and fight, fight, fight,” she said. “And then I get to watch where everything begins. I see that progression, and it makes me enjoy the sport a lot more.”
Peak’s play in the first four matches of the tournament was indicative of their skills and experience … they stayed competitive in those matches as they adjusted to the excitement of being part of the national event. The team came to Indianapolis not necessarily to win all their matches, but for the experience, exposure, and the chance to just play more volleyball.
But things turned around in Peak’s next two matches, as they collected back-to-back wins.
“Two (wins) in one day … what a treat,” Erickson said. “In the first match, they played really well, stayed consistent and kept balls off the ground. That second match, it really started to click. The girls were passing well which made our setters able to use our middles, right sides and outsides. There is nothing like game touches, and the more they can be in those situations the faster they will learn and the better they will be. It was awesome to watch them soak in the moment of putting everything together.”
Ava Wilson, who played with Erickson last year as well, was excited to get a win a lot sooner than they did in 2018.
While Wilson lit up while talking about how the team liked to play “Mafia” together, she also had a few words to say about having a Paralympic gold medalist as a coach.
“It’s really nice to have a coach who’s always positive and helping you on whatever mistakes you make,” said Wilson, who wants to play in college someday.
Wilson added that one of the best things Erickson has taught her is how to make her serves more consistent with her toss.
“Serving is hard to teach if they don’t have the strength,” Erickson said. “They are all are overhead serving, and some of them just start weak with bad form.”
And yes, she has had her team try sitting volleyball. The 11s have not only watched the national team play, they were also ball girls when the U.S. played Ukraine at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, where the sitting program is based.
Not surprisingly, the girls loved the sitting experience.
“Sitting volleyball’s so much faster,” Erickson said. “It makes you use body parts that you don’t use a lot, so you have to use your platform more. Your reaction time gets better because everything is just fundamental skills, and you can’t get away with moving your feet and just getting hit. It’s legit ‘where’s your platform facing, where are you going with it.’”
Coaching will always be in Erickson’s life. She loves watching the progression of the 11s, and that when the girls started playing, they might not have been able to serve or hit, and they were shanking balls everywhere. Now they’ve won two matches at nationals.
“I love it because it doesn’t feel like my sitting team,” she said. “I’m not overwhelmed with too much volleyball because it all feels so different. I’ll always still be involved in volleyball. It’s been my life for so long. If you’re good at something, go with it.”