Five years ago, Bob Abels was in his first year at Vienna Elite, a Chesapeake Region club based in Northern Virginia.
He had nine girls on the 13s team he coached with Pat Hogan.
The year did not go well.
“It was the kind of season you question yourself as a coach, especially when it was your first year,” he said.
The team lost more games than it won. Coaching decisions were questioned. One parent went so far as to say that the team was filled with “talentless” girls.
“He did not see how any of those girls would ever amount to anything in volleyball and disagreed with where I was playing them,” Abels explained. “It was a challenging season.”
Abels kept at it and, in the COVID year of 2020, finally coached a team that received a bid to USA Volleyball Junior Nationals.
“They probably had to go a couple notches down to get to my team because we were ranked fifth or sixth in the region at the time,” he said.
Abels’ 13-L team will not be heading to Junior Nationals in Las Vegas later this season.
But he’ll be there.
Those “talentless” girls who comprised his first team? Six of the nine will continue their careers beyond high school. Five of them will be making the trip to Vegas to play in the USAV event, just one short of a team. They will play for three different clubs.
Two, 6-0 MB Amanda Gore and 5-7 OH Jen Waters, will play for Vienna Elite 18-F in the USA division.
Abels wanted to cut Gore from that 13s team because she was goofy footed and struggled to serve the ball over the net. His club director convinced him to keep her because of her height. She will play at Susquehanna University.
Waters, who will play at Virginia Wesleyan, is a shorter outside hitter, at just 5-7, but few girls hit the ball harder.
“When she was 5-2 and hitting outside for me, I told her that, with her jump, if she got to 5-7, she could make it as an outside,” Abels said. “I measured her at 17s. When she reached the height of 5-7, there was a huge grin on her face.”
Another two, Karis Park and Ella Park, will play for VA Juniors 18 Elite in the USA division.
Karis Park was the star of that 13s team. She was a libero who could track everything and wasn’t afraid of a little contact in her pursuit of the ball.
“All the coaches wish they had her,” Abels said. “Her father let her play for us because he preferred an older coach.”
Karis Park will play at Georgetown next year.
Ella Park was a year younger than everyone else and tall. Abels made her a setter because she was the one girl at tryouts who could set the ball outside.
She will play for Brown University in 2022.
Amy Burkhardt, an outside hitter, will play for Jacksonville Juniors 18N Daniel in the 18 USA division. She moved from Virginia this year and will play for the University of North Florida in Jacksonville in the fall.
“She did not hit a lot of balls in for me when she played, but I could see the potential,” Abels recalled.
Consider that potential fulfilled.
Burkhardt led Ponte Vedra to a state title in her first year in Florida. She was First Team All-State, All-Area Player of the Year and Class 5A Player of the Year.
Abels claims no credit for the development of this quintet.
“Believe me, my coaching was pretty substandard then,” he said. “But when you see the progress the girls make as they continue their volleyball career, it can make you smile. At least the girls enjoyed their season enough that I was not their last coach, even if winning was a struggle that year.”
Abels is, rightly, justified in the pride he feels as 18s Junior Nationals looms.
“It almost feels as if I got a bid this year,” he said. “As a coach, I could not get them to Nationals, but five of the girls will be going five years later. That is a pretty good accomplishment for a group of ‘talentless’ girls.”