Family ties: Athletic acorns don’t fall far from the volleyball trees

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Maddy Kerr, second from right, joins her family after her dad, Steve, coached the Golden State Warriors to the NBA championship

The daughters of former pro athletes. Moms and dads who were stars in their day. Siblings not only in volleyball but all over NCAA rosters. The apples don’t fall far from the tree.

So we set out to find as many Division I players as possible who had family backgrounds where one or more relatives played (or in some cases still are playing) sports at a significant level.

To say the least, the response was overwhelming.

Using conference sports information directors as the starting distribution point and then relying on the responses of individual team SIDs, more than 80 schools got back to us — some with amazingly detailed histories.
As you will see, this is more than just a “look who my famous dad is” type of story. Yes, some players have very famous relatives, but more importantly the focus here is on how coming from a significant family athletic background has shaped these collegiate volleyball players into the athletes, and more importantly, the people they are today.

Just as with our adjacent list, we welcome corrections, additions and any thoughts on the subject. Please email lee@VolleyballMag.com.

We’ve also compiled a remarkable list. Please click here to see just how many amazing athletics-ties stories there are in NCAA volleyball.

Here are some of their stories:

The Cockrell siblings: Anna, Ross, and Ciera
The Cockrell siblings: Anna, Ross, and Ciera

Never a dull moment
Davidson University sophomore outside hitter Ciera Cockrell says growing up with two siblings produced a stream of nonstop competition. Her brother, Ross, is a cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, while sister, Anna, finished seventh at the USA Track and Field Olympic Trials this past summer and now is a freshman hurdler at USC. Their father played football at Columbia University.

“Everything was a competition, sometimes friendly, sometimes not,” says Cockrell, one of the team leaders in kills this season. “We would make up games inside and out to play. It always was my sister and I against Ross. We would be going somewhere as common as the grocery store and take off in a dead sprint across the parking lot trying to see who could make it to the entrance first.”

Chanelle Hargreaves of Florida/UAA Communications photo by Jim Burgess
Chanelle Hargreaves of Florida/UAA Communications photo by Jim Burgess

Christmas competition

At the Hargreaves home, the competitive spirit is in full force on Christmas Eve, as Florida freshman defensive specialist Chanelle Hargreaves explains. Her brother, Vernon III, is a member of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while sister, Carina, is the coordinator of defensive operations for the University of South Carolina football team. Their dad is the linebackers coach at Arkansas.

“Every year my mom hides a fake pickle in the Christmas tree and whoever finds it first gets to open a gift on Christmas Eve,” she says. “It definitely ranks as one of the most competitive events in our house. We take it so seriously if we don’t win.”

UCLA freshman outside hitter Torrey Van Winden also can relate to Christmas-related athletic competitiveness.

Her mom, Kelly, was an All-American outside hitter at Cal Poly, while dad James played basketball at the same school. Older sister, Adlee, is a sophomore on the Cal Poly volleyball team, while cousin Micah Ma’a is a standout on the UCLA men’s volleyball team and was a heralded recruit (VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 selection) coming out of high school in Hawaii. Ma’a is a family-tie story by himself, since his father, Pono, was a star at Hawai’i and on the beach, and his mother, Lisa Strand Ma’a, also played at Hawai’i and on the beach. Lisa and Kelly are twin sisters and Kelly is the former coach at Sonoma State.

“Every Christmas we would have sports day,” Van Winden explains. “We would put together a mix of different sports and we would tally up the points at the end. It was very competitive and so much fun, but with our competitiveness it could get intense.”

The Engles, from left, Kelly Potts, Rachel Engle, Sydney Engle, Ashley Potts
The Engles, from left, Kelly Potts, Rachel Engle, Sydney Engle, Ashley Potts

Always fierce family competition

Western Kentucky junior outside/right-side hitter Sydney Engle is not the first family member to pass through the Lady Toppers program. Older sister, Rachel, played from 2012-2015 and cousins Ashley and Kelly Potts also played for WKU.

“It was a competitive atmosphere all the time,” Engle says. “We made everything into a competition even if it was who could get done eating the fastest. It also meant we always had fun and never really had a dull moment in our house.”

Sibling competition ran rampant through the Kerr household as well. Cal senior libero Maddy Kerr, the daughter of Golden State Warriors basketball coach and former NBA player Steve Kerr, recalls many a spirited battle with brother, Nick, who was one of only 25 students accepted into the USC film school screenwriting program.

“My brother and I always were super-competitive with each other in everything from backyard baseball to ping-pong,” she says. “The first time I beat Nick he threw the ping-pong paddle at me. After we would compete in anything, there was a decent period of time where we wouldn’t talk to each other because one of us was so upset about losing. It’s funny thinking back on it because we are so close, but we were so competitive.”

Kentucky freshman defensive-specialist Kylie Schmaltz, whose brothers, Nick (Chicago Blackhawks) and Jordan (St. Louis Blues), are professional hockey players, recalls no location was off limits for a little competitive fun.

“We found joy in passing around any type of object we could find in what most would consider inconvenient places,” she says. “For instance, if we were in an airport or downtown in a big city we would toss a ball or find some crazy game to play. We could never sit still. It brought a lot of excitement and entertainment.”

But that competitive family atmosphere, Kerr says, helped shape her into the athlete and person she is today.

“I always had to work hard in everything I did growing up and I have maintained that work ethic over time,” she says. “I am a perfectionist, but I think it’s because my parents held us to such high standards in terms of work ethic when we were little. My mom wouldn’t be happy with grades lower than A’s because she believed we were naturally smart enough to do well if we put in the work and she was right. We live by the quote, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’

“My brother never played a single sport but my parents encouraged him to do what he loved. He has been writing screenplays since he was 12 and worked his butt off to get into USC.”

Brooke Smith with her parents, Jeanine and Warren
Brooke Smith with her parents, Jeanine and Warren

Their parents set the standard

Nebraska sophomore defensive specialist-libero Brooke Smith’s parents also have elite athletic backgrounds. Her father, Warren, was a pole vaulter and decathlete at Texas, while mother, Janine was part of the 1988 NCAA women’s volleyball championship team and later was the head coach at UT-Arlington.

“There are a lot of stories through club volleyball but one that sticks out is when I would be the captain on her team,” Smith explains. “She always thought she knew what was best so I had to go protest for her with refs all the time.

“It turned into a joke with my dad and I, but I always was having to protest and fight for her.”

But Smith’s life lessons go well beyond chats with club-volleyball referees.

“My parents are great examples of what it means to be humble and what it means to truly work hard and give 100 percent every day. They are great teachers of that,” she says. “They taught me how to give my best day in and day out and to work to better myself every day.”

UConn sophomore setter Emma Turner notes she has a live reference guide always at her fingertips in the form of father, Jeff, who played 10 seasons in the NBA for the Orlando Magic and New Jersey Nets.

“The greatest part of growing up in an athletic family is my dad had already done all the things I wanted to accomplish,” she says. “He knew what it took to get there. He always has been the perfect person to bounce ideas off of from questions on leadership to improving mental toughness.

“I learned early on how important working hard is to achieve anything. It sounds very cliché, but I saw how successful my dad was on the court and how difficult the road to get there was. I knew how many hours I had to spend in the weight room and the gym. I was driven by knowing what it would take to accomplish my goals and that’s something that has helped me at the collegiate level.”

South Florida senior outside hitter Dakota Hampton, the daughter of NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Dan Hampton, echoes similar sentiments. “Being in an athletic family was the best because they could relate to my struggles and successes and would give me great advice moving forward,” she says.

“Having an athletic family shaped me to be the best person I can be on and off the court. They have pushed me to become what I am today.”

Hampton’s South Florida teammate, junior middle blocker Joli Holland (whose dad, Johnny, played for the Green Bay Packers from 1987 to 1994 and is now a linebackers coach for the Cleveland Browns), says her greatest benefit from being around an athletic environment has come on the mental side of the game.

“Sometimes kids are patted on the back when they make mistakes. My parents are not like that,” she says. “They drove my passion to be my best, which allowed me to grow my desire and heart.”

Van Winden also received an early dose of mental training thanks to the family she grew up in. “Being in an athletic family matured me very fast in the realm of sports,” she says. “I was around good athletes and my parents both played so the mental side of my game developed at a young age.”

Inspirations on many levels

Auburn senior middle blocker Breanna Barksdale had a major source of inspiration growing up in her grandfather, Don Barksdale, a 1942 Olympic gold medalist and a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I heard stories about my grandfather’s ability to overcome adversity from the color of his skin to being cut from the high-school team every year. He got there through hard work, humility and mental toughness,” Barksdale says.

“Growing up knowing all he accomplished inspired me. During high-school tryouts, I walked in not knowing anything about volleyball and by the end of the week I had put in countless hours working to catch up to the other girls. Every day going into practice I knew I would have to work 10 times as hard as everyone else and I was OK with that. I focused on competing with myself. I still have the drive and passion to constantly compete every day.”

UCLA junior outside hitter Reily Buechler felt more at ease growing up knowing the sports backgrounds of her parents. Father, Jud, was part of three NBA championship teams with the Chicago Bulls, while mom, Lindsey, was a standout setter at Arizona and still ranks in the top 10 in several statistical categories there. What’s more, Jud Buechler also played volleyball at Arizona.

“It’s nice knowing you have people you can look up to and relate to,” she says. “They were such great athletes that I knew I could rely on them for advice. It’s nice to have a support system where people know what they are talking about. I’m very lucky to have that.”
Southern Illinois University senior setter Hannah Kaminsky, whose brother, Frank, starred on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team that made it to the 2015 NCAA title game and now is a member of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, says sports has brought her family even closer.

“I grew up in the gym and so did my brothers and sisters,” said Kaminsky, whose parents also played sports in college. “We’re able to share our love for sports with the family and that makes an extra bond we have with each other.”

Jerry Sloan and Megan
Jerry Sloan and Megan

Sound advice from knowledgeable parents

Another benefit of growing up in athletic families is the amount of advice and tips that are constantly available.

UConn senior outside hitter Jade Strawberry leans on her father, former Major League Baseball player Darryl Strawberry, for words of wisdom during her climb up the athletics ladder.

“I grew up around many different sports,” Strawberry says. “It helped me to get a jump-start into sports. The best advice my dad has given me is by explaining to me that times will get tough being an athlete and when the times do get tough, I have to push myself as hard as I can and work as hard as I can to be the best I can be.”

Megan Sloan, Louisville’s freshman outside/right-side hitter, says a key piece of advice she received from her father, Brian (part of an Indiana NCAA championship men’s basketball team), and grandfather, Jerry (former longtime Utah Jazz head coach), also pertains to those times when the going gets tough.

“Always be the hardest worker and be the best teammate you can be,” Sloan says. “Even if things aren’t going your way, you have to buy into the system.”

Oregon freshman right-side hitter Willow Johnson says her father, Randy (who enjoyed a Hall of Fame pitching career with several teams, including the Arizona Diamondbacks), always stressed paying attention to smaller details such as keeping one’s body healthy.

“He talks about the extra things,” she says. “My dad has been a big part of my growth as an athlete. He taught me to never settle for anything mediocre, to push myself to be the best I can be and go and do the extra things so I can be a better player. He helped bring me to the success I’ve had in my career. He taught me to be better.”

Johnson’s freshman teammate, middle blocker Ronika Stone, appreciates the bluntness of her father, Ron Stone, a former NFL Pro Bowl player. “He would ask me if I wanted a cookie for doing my job,” says Stone, one of five siblings. “His best advice is always do something better than the best.”

Stone also recites an additional piece of dad advice that’s larger than the confines of a volleyball court. “He says stay true to who I am and don’t change on or off the court.”

Katie Sato, a junior libero at Cal State Northridge, whose dad Gary played at UC Santa  Barbara, said he told her “Always stay humble.”.

“Many of my family members have accomplished so many things in their volleyball careers, but they always have remained humble and didn’t let it go to their heads. They also have taught me there is always room for improvement and to always work hard.”
Long Beach State junior middle blocker Ashley Murray, who appreciates that her parents allowed her to try different sports, says her father (Lamond Murray, who played 11 years in the NBA) provided a constant source of inspiration growing up.

“I had an immediate idol for what it’s like to be a professional athlete, as well as being able to have someone there for advice on and off the court,” she says. “I also learned very early what the work ethic of a successful athlete is like.”

North Carolina sophomore defensive specialist-libero Casey Jacobs didn’t have to stray too far for volleyball advice growing up. She’s the cousin of sport great and 1984 Olympic silver-medalist Sue Woodstra.

“She always told me it didn’t matter how small I was,” says Jacobs, a former outside hitter. “Although in volleyball in 2016 the game has changed and it does matter, but I play back row so it’s good I’m small. I never thought of myself as someone who wasn’t going to play volleyball in college at the Division I level at a highly ranked school. Since I first touched a ball when I was 11, I knew this way my sport and nothing else mattered.”

Texas A&M's Stephanie Aiple
Texas A&M’s Stephanie Aiple

Texas A&M setter Stephanie Aiple also grew up in a volleyball family. Her mom, Connie, played at Long Beach State, while her aunt, Diane Watson, was an All-American at Texas and was Aiple’s coach at Round Rock High School. Her dad, Matt, played on the AVP tour for two years.

“My parents never forced me to do anything growing up,” Aiple says. “Volleyball wasn’t something I just woke up one day and was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to try volleyball today.’ It was more natural because I grew up around it. Even though I have a huge background in volleyball, it’s been something that’s been my passion, too. I can’t think back far enough where volleyball wasn’t part of my life.

“My parents have navigated me through it all just because of their experience, but it’s definitely a sport I fell in love with from the beginning.”
Davidson’s Ciera Cockrell admits gaining confidence is something she’s had to work on throughout her athletic endeavors. But that process was aided by the presence of her sister.


“My sister is quite the opposite,” she explains. “When she steps on the track, she trusts herself and her training and tells herself she is the best athlete out there, even if it’s not the case. Through talking to her about our different experiences and watching her do her thing on the track, I’ve learned how important believing in yourself, your ability and your training is when you step on the court.”

Strong advice: Work hard, be balanced

Nebraska’s Smith said, “The best advice my parents gave me is to stay true to yourself and not let anybody in the gym, school, class or in life outwork you. Be the hardest worker you can be and do the best you can to your abilities.”

“Never let anyone outwork you,” Cockrell says. “Out-working people still is something I try to carry with me in my college career. The next girl may be more talented or more technically sound than me, but I always turn to hard work to give me that extra edge on the court and in life.”

South Florida’s Holland received similar advice from her father about the benefits of a strong work ethic.

“The best advice my dad gave me was to be so good nobody can deny you,” she says. “It simply means if you work to be the best at what you do, no matter what odds are against you, you’ll overcome.”

Alex Banister of Baylor, a senior libero, is the daughter of the manager of the Texas Rangers,

But she said some of the best advice she got was from Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutcheon when Jeff Banister was a Pirates coach.

“He said it doesn’t matter what you do,” Bannister recalls, “it matters about the people you affect and the lives you can change throughout the game of baseball or whatever game you play.”

Several players say the best advice they’ve received from family members relates to life without sports.

“Sports are not the be-all-end-all of life,” Turner says. “As sad as it is, there will come a time when I don’t get to play volleyball anymore. Of course, this helps remind me to enjoy every day I get to be in the gym with my teammates.

“My dad’s advice about this really changed my point of view in that I now can see the bigger picture, which is sports gives me the chance to do what I love while providing a platform to impact and serve others. This helps prevent me from defining myself by my performance and piling on all that pressure, Instead, I try to focus on gaining confidence in working each day to be a better player and person.”
Engle hears a familiar refrain from her sister and cousins regarding the bigger life picture.

“They have taught me your on-court performance isn’t the only piece of college that matters,” she says. “They have made life-long friends through Western Kentucky and they never want me to pass up the memories they were able to make. They always tell me how much they miss playing and to enjoy the time I have because they would do anything to go back.

“They also taught me to focus not only on my sport, but also on school. Two of my four relatives that played at Western Kentucky are currently in pharmacy school. We all have dedicated a lot to our studies in hopes it will better prepare us for our future after being an athlete.”

Kerr notes her father’s advice to her has always been to look ahead.

“As big of a role that basketball plays in my dad’s life, he is very conscious of the fact it is just a sport,” she says. “There is a lot of other stuff going on in the world and winning and losing are definitely not all that important in the grand scheme of things, no matter how competitive we are. After a loss or a rough game, he always reminds me that I have a lot more ahead of me in life and a lot more to accomplish outside of volleyball.”

A reminder that we’ve compiled a remarkable list. Please click here to see just how many amazing athletics-ties stories there are in NCAA volleyball.

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