Had the Texas Tornados Volleyball Club not approached real estate agent Holly Fanning two years ago to solicit her sponsorship, we all might have missed out on one of the hottest young volleyball players ever to come out of Houston.
Fanning decided that if she was going to sponsor the club, she wanted her daughter Shelly to play for it. So Shelly tried out for the 14’s team—the first time she’d ever played volleyball—and thus began one girl’s dramatic rise in the sport she was clearly born to play.
“Her progress has been amazing,” said Shelly’s trainer, Lily Denoon. “To see her growth from the first time I saw her is incredible.”
Shelly was initially placed on the club’s fourth team, but it soon became clear to the Tornados’ head coach, James Fuller, that she belonged much higher.
“At the end of the first practice, I had an inner monologue with myself,” said Fuller. “What is this kid doing on our fourth team? Come to find out it was Shelly’s family’s first experience with club volleyball, and they wanted to start off on a non-travel, less-stress team. However, she was pulled up to 14 Mizuno [the club’s top travel team] a few months later.”
This was the first time that Shelly’s extraordinary natural talent for the game raised her to a playing level beyond her age and experience. It wouldn’t be the last.
A natural athlete from a family of athletes (her brother Travis and sister Sandy are both track stars), Shelly achieved distinction in two other sports, track and horseback riding, before discovering her latent talent for volleyball.
Her specialty in track is the high jump.
“I got third [out of fifteen] at district last year for the high jump,” she said. “My highest jump is five feet three inches.”
This exceptional jumping ability is part of what makes Shelly such a strong middle blocker.
“She’s got a ridiculous vertical,” said her father, Bill Fanning. “She touches over ten feet.”
Also aiding Shelly on the court is her height: even at the tender age of 15 she already towers at an imposing 6’1”—“and still growing,” according to her dad.
“She’s a huge girl,” said Denoon. “But she’s the sweetest thing.”
Denoon took one look at Shelly and knew she would be a special player.
“I saw her and I said, I’m going to make her my project. By the time she’s in high school or college, she’s going to be something.”
Denoon approached Shelly at the eighth-grader’s first volleyball tryout.
“She came over to me and basically told me she wanted to start working with me,” recalls Shelly. “She said that in a few years I would be really good.”
If anyone can spot a good player, it’s Denoon: she’s been a professional volleyball player herself for 15 years in Puerto Rico, facing off against such greats as April Ross, Nancy Metcalf, Destinee Hooker, Kim Black, and Courtney Thompson. Denoon took Shelly under her wing – which was a great boon to the talented junior, who thus received private lessons from a seasoned pro in her very first year. The two met twice a week for an hour at a time and worked on serving, blocking, and attacking, as well as developing defense and increasing speed.
Shelly’s natural talent, enthusiasm, and eagerness to learn and improve, combined with Denoon’s superior training, propelled the then 14-year-old forward so rapidly that by the time her freshman year rolled around, Shelly was already good enough to play on the varsity team. Arley Kocher, head volleyball coach at Cypress Ranch High School, recalls the first time she saw Shelly in action: she could see the girl was playing years beyond her level.
“After watching her play, I asked her to try out with the upperclassmen, so I could watch her play with older, more talented athletes,” Kocher said. “After working with her, and seeing how receptive she was to the varsity squad, and vice versa, I offered her a spot as middle blocker on the varsity team.”
Starting high school on the varsity team was another clear sign that Shelly was destined for greatness in this game.
“She was the only freshman on the varsity team,” noted Denoon, “which is saying a lot.”
In fact, Shelly was the only underclassman on the team: there were no sophomores.
Shelly was also well received by her older teammates.
“I was the only freshman on varsity, so I was the little baby of the seniors,” she said. “They took me under their wing, and they were good role models for me.”
Expectations for Shelly ran high – and she did not disappoint. Like a wild horse set free to run, Shelly surged forward by leaps and bounds, getting stronger with every game she played.
“She got better and better as our season progressed,”said Kocher. “She came into her own and led the district almost the entire year in solo blocks. The more she played, the better she got. She understood the game and was much more efficient at reading her hitters. She was an instant hit on the team. She always worked hard, and always smiled. I could get on to her and she would nod her head, say ‘Yes Coach,’ and then smile! It’s easy to see why her teammates love her.”
As for Shelly, she feels right at home among the varsity players.
“I love working with all the older girls on my high school team, because I think they are at my maturity level.” Lest you think the amiable Shelly is being immodest, she clarifies that she means this primarily in the athletic sense: “I just feel like I move quicker than my age group with speed, jumping, and blocking.”
By the end of her freshman year, Shelly had done so well that she captured her first of what will likely be many titles: Newcomer of the Year for the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District, a top honor voted on by all the head volleyball coaches in the district.
Among the many gifts Shelly brings to the court is a positive energy and enthusiasm that lifts the spirits of those around her.
“She’s one of those players that’s always giving high-fives, creating confidence,” says Denoon. “She’s a good team player.”
Shelly agrees that good energy is one thing she contributes to her team: “I feel like I brought excitement to the court, and just positive vibes. When everybody was down when we were behind, I’d be like, ‘it’s okay, we’ll get the next one’, and stay positive, and that helped.”
Now in her sophomore year, Shelly shows every sign of becoming one of the top players in the country.
“I can really see her going to a Division I school,” said Denoon. “Nebraska, Illinois, those schools look for big athletes. She’s definitely a great athlete, but also incredibly smart.”
Fuller’s prediction is even more optimistic: “She will definitely be a Division I All-American.”
Shelly’s star has risen so rapidly that its presence hasn’t yet had a chance to register on the radar of college coaches and scouts, said Fuller.
“I feel that for now Shelly is a ‘dark horse’ recruit, only because she has improved immensely in the last seven months, and not many college coaches know of her yet. All that will quickly change, though.”
Indeed, if her performance thus far is any indicator, this rising young star may soon be blazing so brightly that her brilliance will be seen across the land.
Originally published in March/April 2012