Sports Performance: The standard bearer

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DestinationVolleyball.com is proud to welcome Mike Miazga into the fold. Few people are more connected to the sport on any level than the former editor in chief of Volleyball magazine.

Mike has been involved with the sport of volleyball for more than two decades as a writer, editor or executive. After writing about the sport as part of his duties for two suburban Chicago daily newspapers, he headed the media and public relations efforts for United States Professional Volleyball. The league featured women’s pro indoor franchises in Chicago, Rochester, Minn., St. Louis and Grand Rapids, Mich., and was filled with many of the game’s top women’s talents, including future pro beach stars Jen Kessy and Nicole Branagh.

Miazga also was editor in chief of Volleyball magazine from 2003 to 2009 and has remained active in the sport through his contributions to a variety of volleyball-related media outlets.

This is the first in a series highlighting top clubs in America.

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Sports Performance Volleyball Club stresses player development above all else

By Mike Miazga

Most successes in life tend to have an interesting back story. The Sports Performance Volleyball Club, based in Aurora, Ill., is no exception. Regarded as the most successful juniors club in the country (check out the trophy case in their facility sometime if you don’t believe it), Sports Performance actually got its start as a training center for athletes back in the early 1980s. That training center at the time, called the Sports Performance Rehabilitation Institute, counted volleyball players among its varied clientele. “Athletes would work on things such as jump training and fitness,” says Sports Performance VBC co-owner and volleyball coaching guru Rick Butler, who after playing college football at the University of Redlands (Calif.) was working at the west suburban Chicago facility. “We had a lot of people going through there.” Butler, an Oregon native, explains the idea was hatched to start a volleyball team out of the training center. Butler was not the club’s first coach, but started a year later in 1982. “Because I worked there at the beginning, the name (Sports Performance) stuck,” Butler says. And that name has become synonymous with sustained national-level success not to mention setting up players for productive careers at the highest levels of the game. How is that success quantified? Sports Performance, which has enjoyed a longtime relationship with apparel and footwear manufacturer Mizuno, has won 78 age-group championships (as of 2015) and has sent 648 players onto the collegiate level. Of that 648 total, 114 players went on to play at Big Ten Conference schools and 22 Sports Performance alumni have earned AVCA All-American honors.

The Top Priority

But ask Butler about all the accolades over three-plus decades and the conversation turns to the club’s No. 1 mantra.

“We have very consistent core values here,” he says. “Player development comes first here. Training always will be based on player development. Teams do well because the focus is on training individuals and getting them ready to play at the next level.” Molly Haggerty, a senior at Wheaton, Ill.-based St. Francis High School and a University of Wisconsin signee, joined the club when she was 12. She first played on the club’s 18 Elite team when she was a sophomore. “Sports Performance teaches you how to be a great volleyball player and a great person,” she says. “It makes you become very responsible and independent. Rick talks about being your best. When we all are like that, everybody becomes better and better.”

Lauren Carlini sets
Lauren Carlini, Sports Performance product, Wisconsin All-American

Current University of Wisconsin setter Lauren Carlini has Haggerty beat when it comes to the age she started at Sports Performance. “I started there when I was 5,” she says. “It’s a lot of hard work there that requires discipline and dedication. I used to see all the girls go on to play at college such as Florida, Michigan and Texas. That’s what has kept me going. I’m an extremely driven person. You have to want it for yourself. Others can’t want it for me.” Butler says the club looks for a certain type of player. “We’re a good fit for people who have the right mindset and aren’t afraid to train, work hard and want to excel to the highest level,” he says. “We want to appeal to that group and we’re going to grow and develop those players.” Sports Performance isn’t kidding when it says it is laser-focused on player development. The club’s younger teams do not use a libero, instead zeroing in on developing a wide variety of skills for each player by having them play six rotations. “There is no correlation between the development of great players and what happens at those lower levels,” Butler says. “Again, our focus, first and foremost, is individual player development. Kids who go on to play after high school have to be very good players. It’s not about teams playing at the 12s and 13s levels.” The club does not have a 17s program, but at times will field 17s teams. “All our seniors are starters. We spread the senior class among all our teams,” Butler explains. “The worst thing you can do is during senior year have a team with eight or nine where players aren’t playing much before they go off to college. The goal is to have as many kids play as possible. Smaller rosters allow for more playing time and helps keep that experience level moving forward.” Last year, Sports Performance sent eight 18s teams to AAU nationals in Orlando and won six medals.

It’s a Tough Commitment

Sports Performance isn’t for everybody. The training is extensive and intense and there is a high level of commitment required (For example, Sports Performance holds practices on Friday nights). “Playing Division I volleyball involves 20 hours a week of practice and its six days a week,” said Butler. “A lot of kids aren’t ready for that. They are shocked by the amount of work they have to do. We always follow the model we have in place that resembles what they do at the college level. We look for dedicated kids. We do practice on Friday nights. If Friday night is a deal-breaker for you, you probably are not serious about being an elite volleyball player. Nobody that has gone through here has ever said the college schedule was difficult or said they weren’t ready for the next level. Our No. 1 focus is to get your daughter ready to play at the next level.” Haggerty, whose sisters also played at Sports Performance, credits much of her development to the time and effort she has put in at the club. “Since I was 12, I’ve seen a lot of people leave the club because it was too tough or practices were too long,” Haggerty says. “With Sports Performance you have to be 100% committed. I would be nowhere close to where I am now without Sports Performance.”

Boys Night Out

While the lion’s share of the club’s success has come from its girls’ teams, it also continues to make headway with its boys’ club arm. The club typically fields between 12-14 boys’ teams. “The previous boys’ directors have left a great foundation to work with,” says Sports Performance Vice President Troy Gilb, who is in his first season as boys’ director and is approaching 10 years of service with the club. “I see us continuing to grow. We’re starting to get more middle school-age boys in the program and we’ve had a lot of inquiries about tryouts next year. With the success of local colleges such as Loyola (Chicago) and Lewis University, that helps with the growth of the program. And the way the college game is growing with NAIA teams, it gives boys the opportunity to play at the next level.” Butler noted a match last year between Loyola-Chicago and Lewis featured 11 alums of the Sports Performance boys’ program. And some of the Chicagoland’s elite boys’ high-school players this spring are Sports Performance members. “The future is bright for guys coming through this program,” Gilb says.

View of courts

Weight room

Getting Down to Business

Sports Performance also is a wild success away from the court. After calling an at-the-time shuttered grade school home, the club moved in 1991 to its own building, which housed four courts. As the club grew, two more courts were added. Out of space, the club moved its current facility, the Great Lakes Center that at first featured eight courts. Further growth has seen GLC expand from eight to 12 courts. A volleyball equipment and apparel store has been a longtime fixture in the facility, as has a dedicated physical training area. “Nobody ever dreamed volleyball would become this big to the point we are playing in convention centers with hundreds of courts,” Butler says. Today, boys’ and girls’ volleyball events of some sort are held at GLC 350 days a year, Butler notes. Some highlights include Sports Performance hosting four girls’ tournaments, a well-regarded regional power league that has ballooned to 450 teams, camps, as well as high-school summer leagues. “The banker doesn’t give me a break if the building is empty,” Butler says with a laugh. “The minute you start charging a fee for a service you are running a business no matter how big or small. Facilities sit empty 18 hours a day, but you don’t stop paying the mortgage. Not only are we developing players, we’re employing people full-time who do something they love and are supporting their families. It’s a win-win for everybody. We have a professional staff here. We view our players as our customers. Our job is to train our players to become better consistently. If they do that they are going to go on and be a good representative of the program. Our job is turn out elite-level players. The team is secondary. Player development is first.” Gilb says the thing that impresses him the most about the club is its long lineage of excellence. “I’m the type of guy who respects sustained excellence like Duke basketball and the New England Patriots,” he says. “This club produces successful players and teams. Our players understand how much dedication it takes and the amount of time needed to compete at high levels. They are dedicated and focused on becoming great and a lot of that has to do with the tradition here.”

And at the juniors level, it’s a tradition like no other.

Sports Performance VBC by the numbers

Location: Aurora, Ill. (Great Lakes Center)

Year founded: 1981

Number of teams (boys and girls): 55

Total number of players in club: 550-600

Coaches: 60

Age-group national titles: 75

Notable alums:

Kelly Murphy (Florida; Gatorade national HS POY; four-time AVCA All-American)

Bonnie Bremner (Penn State; four-time AVCA All-American)

Lauren Carlini (Wisconsin; Gatorade national HS POY; three-time AVCA All-American)

Nancy Brookhart (Illinois; three-time AVCA All-American)

Mary Eggers (Illinois; three-time AVCA All-American)

Nellie Spicer (UCLA; three-time AVCA All-American)

Sam Tortorello (Penn State; three-time AVCA All-American)

Denise Boylan (Notre Dame; Gatorade national high school player of the year)

Did you know?

Sports Performance players have won the Illinois Gatorade POY award 11 times. Current player Molly Haggerty is the only one to win it twice in 2014 and last fall.

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