By Mike Miazga
Former Ole Miss defensive specialist-libero Ashley Vech recalls that when the Alpharetta, Ga.-based A5 first started, she attended a clinic put on by club founder Bob Westbrook.
“Bob would put on these clinics on a Sunday or Monday,” she says. “I went to one and I was the only person who showed up. But Bob stayed with me and worked with me for two hours by myself. He still remembers that day.” Times have changed. A5, in the span of just more than a decade, has mushroomed into one of the most successful clubs in the country. Today, A5 boasts nearly 900 players in the club across more than 72 indoor teams (68 girls teams and four boys teams). A5 also has a coaching roster that numbers 142 and in addition to its massive girls indoor offering, the club trains about 55 female beach players.
“We’ve only done one thing remarkable here and that’s spend most of our time thinking about what we can do to be better and how we can continue to grow the A5 culture,” says a modest Westbrook, who helped start Colorado-based Front Range VBC. His extensive coaching roots extend back to an association with former USC and Michigan State women’s coach Chuck Erbe (who led USC to three AIAW titles and the first NCAA women’s volleyball title in 1981). And in the 1970s Westbrook was involved with one group that featured sport standouts Debbie Green-Vargas, Sue Woodstra and Debbie Brown and Terry Place—all parts of either the 1980 or 1984 Olympic teams.
That A5 culture includes a consistent instruction policy throughout the club. “We have a top-to-bottom coaching philosophy here,” Westbrook says. “If you go into the 12-and-under gym and you say we’re going to run four corners, it will be done the same way in the 18s gym.”
A5 alum Courtney Wilkinson (nee Fletcher) says consistently in coaching absolutely made a difference when she played at the club. Wilkinson, who played middle blocker at the University of Michigan, played five years in the A5 system.
“If there is that consistency with coaching every year, that helps you become a better player,” she says. “If one year you are taught swing blocking and the next year it’s regular blocking, you never will be as good as you can be in specific situations. There always was that familiarity when you moved up each year in the club.” A5 16-1s coach and club associate director of operations Gabe Aramian notes the club has continued to thrive based on a distinct goal of having its teams compete at the national level. We’ve created our own little world here,” Aramian says. “One of our biggest pieces is we want to compete at the national level and we’ve created an organization around that. We’ve developed a culture in the gym where we want to compete against the best teams in the nation. We continue to build on it. We don’t just want to have the best teams in Georgia or in the region. We want to have the best teams in the country.” Westbrook adds: “To be at the national level, you have to play in the national championships. In order to win the national championship, you have to play in it.” Putting the tools in place In terms of facilities, A5 also has come a long way since its beginnings in 2005. It now has courts located in its own Southern Volleyball Center in Alpharetta, Ga., as well as in The Cooler (also known as the Alpharetta Family Skate Center). Those two facilities give A5 access to nine competition courts. “It’s important that we have facilities that we can call ours,” Westbrook says. Westbrook heaps plenty of credit on A5 Executive Director Michael Fletcher for his role in the organizational/operational aspect of the club. Fletcher, who has been involved with the club dating back to 2005, has been executive director since 2008. “Michael used a great deal of his money to get the warehouse (which is now the Southern Volleyball Center),” he says. “He’s a West Point guy who has a master’s degree from Stanford. He’s an extremely bright guy. Michael has been great. When you have multi-millions of dollars coming in a year, that’s enough to screw things up. You have to have sound business practices and solid infrastructure in place. Michael has done that for us. You can’t run as a mom-and-pop operation. You need good business practices.” Likewise, Fletcher says A5 wouldn’t be what it is today without Westbrook and his training expertise. “Bob’s a humble guy, but he is a gifted coach,” Fletcher says. “What makes him special is he can see things others can’t. He’s always teaching and engaging the girls in a positive way. He’s a gifted guy who has been able to bring in other gifted people.” A5 also benefits from the presence of Westbrook’s VolleyPerformance enterprise that trains players and teams of all skill levels around the metro Atlanta area. VolleyPerformance, which hosts weekly classes and workshops as well as summer camps and satellite camps, features the training methodology used at A5. VolleyPerformance is based out of the Southern Volleyball Center. Westbrook estimates some 1,500 Atlanta area players go through VolleyPerformance each year. Not all VolleyPerformance players are part of the A5 club. “We want players to become involved in the sport as early as possible,” he says. “We train players from 70 high schools and a bunch of middle schools. We don’t care where they are from. We have a bunch of gifted men and women who train these players in our gym.” A5’s recent growth has included the addition of the GA5 satellite club in Suwanee, Ga. (north and east of Atlanta) and the A5 South satellite that serves the south side of the area near Peachtree City. A5 South calls the four-court Peachtree Volleyball Center home. Wilkinson recalls practicing in one particular church gym in the early days of the club and encountering an interesting impediment. “There was a light that hung down over where the outside (hitter) was,” she says. “We’d run go’s instead of 4s because the ball was hitting the light. It was annoying, but we got good at running go’s. It’s so cool to see where they came from practicing in church gyms on Sunday nights to now owning facilities with so many amenities.”
Looking back, Westbrook can’t believe how quickly the club has grown and the amount of success it has achieved. He notes A5 is one the top clubs in the country in terms of number of accepted bids to junior nationals over the last four years and also points to the club’s No. 2 ranking in the country by Triple Crown Sports. Triple Crown Sports produces US Club Rankings, which uses tournament finishes from all governing bodies, coaches’ opinion polls and college placement information as the basis for its lists.
“Timing is one aspect of it and you have to have some magic and luck,” Westbrook says. “There was a ton of pent-up demand for volleyball in this area. There are five million people in metro Atlanta. People wanted things done a different way. I feel so blessed. There are so many gifted people contributing to what we do. I do things reasonably well, but there is no way I could have done this without the people we have here. This is the residue of what we’ve designed. We want to be humble, but hungry. We’re focused on the sustainability of the club and doing what it takes to be the best. We’re not taking our success for granted. We still have a lot more to accomplish.”
Fletcher says A5 has positioned itself for even further growth and success. “We’re very fortunate to have great coaches and great facilities,” he says. “We’re able to attract great athletes and link them up with gifted coaches. We never aspired to be big, just to be the best we can be. Growth has been a function and a result of our success. These players come in here at 8-, 9- and 10-years-old and leave as confident and self-assured young women who are ready to play at the next level. Success breeds success.”
A5 By the Numbers
Year club founded: 2005
Number of players in club: 881 Number of coaches: 142 Number of teams: 68 girls indoor; 4 boys indoor; About 5 girls playing beach year-round. Number of players who have gone on to play at the college level: 227 (A5), 16 (A5 South), 61 (GA5)
Number of club national championships: 3 (2007 in 16 American; 2008 in 18 National; and 2011 in 16 American)