Geoff Cowles/News Audrey Carlisle, a third-grader from Centerburg, prepares to serve during Knox County Volleyball League competition recently. The league is for elementary age volleyball players.

Geoff Cowles/Mount Vernon News

Audrey Carlisle, a third-grader from Centerburg, prepares to serve during Knox County Volleyball League competition recently. The league is for elementary age volleyball players. Request this photo


CENTERBURG — It’s a big undertaking, but area high school volleyball coaches are pulling together to lift up their sport.

Coaches from Centerburg, Fredericktown, Northridge, East Knox and Danville are giving girls volleyball a boost by working with their greatest resource — their youth. This month’s youth volleyball camp is a chance to bring forth a new generation of young talent.

“Youth volleyball is so important,” said Centerburg varsity coach Rachael Walpole. “The fundamentals are so important.”

It is a camp that mixes practice with fun and allows for some flexibility. It’s not unusual to see a more-advanced player move up to practice with older kids. The weekly interscholastic games are timed matches and are as much for fun and learning as they are for anything else.

“Most importantly, it is an opportunity to introduce volleyball the kids in elementary and middle school with the hope that many of them will carry that into high school,” said Walpole. “I coached the seventh grade a couple of years ago and I had varsity last year. Also, last year, I coached a fifth-grade team in this league, and I got to watch them as sixth graders (recently.) Let me tell you, their volleys were there and their understanding of the game was impressive. There was a big difference.”

Watching Walpole work with a group of fourth graders on their footwork may appear like a dance class at times.

“It’s about the skill work,” Walpole said. “They all need to learn the skills. We work on skills like footwork, and those are varsity-level skills, but they’ve heard of them. That way, later on, you can trigger the memory of them. Then, they are doing blocking footwork and they feel like big kids. It’s important down the road, because then they have all heard about it and they all understand it.”

Those skills stay with the girls as they climb the rungs to get to the varsity.

“Last year, when I was at varsity, our girls hadn’t gone through this,” Walpole explained. “I would say something about the setting footwork and they would say, ‘Wait. What’s the setting foot work?’ or ‘What do we do when the ball is in a certain place?’ Well, that is the kind of stuff we’re doing right now with fourth, fifth and sixth graders so they will know.”

Some past and current coaches are lending a hand. Also some current players who are looking to become future coaches are helping out. The fourth-grad team is run by parent Courtney Caldwell, student Rebecca Vines, former player Carey Ballinger, current student Gwyn Sands and former junior high coach Tracy Wright. The fifth-grade team features current seventh-grade coach Kevin Bell and high school senior Natalie Coffing and her junior classmate, Taylor Scowden. Former ninth-grade coach Dawn Lawrence and parent Randi Fairall coach the sixth grade.

“I didn’t even have to ask for coaches,” Walpole said. “They stepped forward. They came in and helped me run practices. I tell all my varsity players, ‘This is your program. This should matter to you.’”

All five participating schools run their program in a similar way. Every single kid that is in the camp gets free tickets to a varsity volleyball game. The kids who signed up with Coach Walpole in February not only received solid coaching, but they also were issued a T-shirt. In addition, the girls in Centerburg get constant encouragement.

“I’m a teacher here at the elementary school, so I’m able to walk down at lunchtime and kind of joke around with the girls and say, ‘Hey, Are you playing volleyball?’ Well, they feel important which is the most important thing. They see that I am excited and I want them out there. I want the kids to have a sense of belonging. I want them to have friendships and I want their self-esteem to be high. If doing it through volleyball is where it happens, then I think we’ve reached our goal. They will get good along the way because they’re having fun doing it. These kids are doing bumps and sets when I’m not asking them to.”

Centerburg’s Kenlee Fairall, 11, says that volleyball has kept her active and helped her make friends.

“I just like it,” Fairall said. “I’ve been playing it since the fourth grade.”

Fairall, who has only seen one varsity game, dreams of stepping into a pair of those big shoes one day.

“I’ve learned how to make the right approaches and footwork,” Fairall said. “I want to be a setter.”

Ella Lawrence of Centerburg, age 10, sees varsity games every so often. She is looking to play up front.

“I want to be an outside hitter,” Lawrence said, “It has helped me to be more active, so I’m not just sitting around doing nothing.”

Even more importantly, is the way that volleyball has helped her to connect with people.

“I like meeting friends and just having fun with them,” Lawrence said.

This program also gives the current members of the varsity an opportunity to leave something behind. Scowden is helping to coach the younger players, and iIn the process, she and the younger players become part of the Centerburg volleyball tradition.

“I love the idea of building up a program — especially volleyball, because I love this sport,” Scowden said. “I play it year around. I also love giving back to our community and be able to help all of these younger kids to be involved in a sport that, hopefully, they will love, when they get older.”

The current league was only scheduled to be a little over a month long. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus outbreak, Sunday’s matches at Centerburg were canceled, and all league activity is currently suspended with no further Sunday games. In addition, all practices are suspended. A decision on practice makeup dates is pending at this time.

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Geoff Cowles: 740-397-5333 or and on Twitter, @