There are only seven members of the Octane Panthers 14U team … seven members who primarily compose the junior varsity program at Portville High School in Portville, N.Y., a town of about 2,000.
One of those seven started playing volleyball less than a year ago, and two of them are young enough to play below the 14 division.
But here were the Panthers anyway, facing off against perennial powerhouse TAV 14 Blue on championship court at the 2019 USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championships.
It seems unlikely that they would be in Indianapolis in the 14 USA division this week, but that’s where the love of the sport reigns supreme. They knew coming in there wasn’t going to be a podium finish; they probably even knew that there might be some rough matches. But they raised the money and came anyway.
That’s courage. That’s dedication.
< Octane head coach Kelly Unverdorben has seen it all, so the ups and downs are nothing new to her. She’s led the varsity program at Portville H.S. to numerous state titles and has taken an Octane program to nationals in five of the last eight years. But she’s also a teacher, and a teacher molds and shapes young players to become future stars. Not one of the players she’s coaching this week have ever been to nationals. “When we were getting ready to come out here, [I said to them], ‘You’re not going there to win it, you’re going there to get better as a volleyball player. You’re going there to have fun, for the experience of a lifetime. “’You may never get a chance to come back,’” she continued ‘”… so go play the best volleyball that you’ve ever played in your heart, and give all effort. Lay it all out there, and you’ll be better for it when you leave. Sometimes, when you lose, that’s how you become the best player.’”
Despite the team’s second straight loss in pool play Thursday, Unverdorben said the girls were having a ball and loving playing against the big teams like TAV and Red Rock.
Octane qualified for nationals by winning the Western Empire Regional Volleyball regional qualifier, but that was just the first step. The girls then had to find a way to pay for their trip.
That meant fundraiser after fundraiser. Parents visited businesses in town to ask for donations, and the girls held a bake sale and car wash, among other projects.
“The businesses were so kind,” she said, “but the kids also worked very hard for it.”
After two days at nationals, Octane is 0-5, but they won’t be hanging their heads.
“They’re not going to be afraid now when they step on their home court in high school,” Unverdorben said of her players. “They’ve been on this court, and now they can say “you won’t scare us now, no one’s going to scare us.”
Sport Court is the official athletic flooring for all USA Volleyball national championship events.
The Girls Junior National Championships continue Saturday with the 14s, 15s and 12s. The first championships matches take place Sunday for the 14s.