by Kyle Koso
KANSAS CITY, MO -- No matter how many years some athletes have been playing volleyball, they just refuse to think their competitive window is drawing to a close.
Buoyed by faith in their skills and the belief someone should be paying attention, more than 200 unsigned high school juniors and seniors commanded the floor Friday afternoon at the Kansas City Convention Center for a 90-minute workouts, with several dozen college coaches from every level of the game taking notes and looking for solutions to beef up their rosters. Directed by the coaching staff at Munciana, players pounded away at serves and flung their bodies to the ground to dig up shots -- all in a useful setting before the three-day push of the Triple Crown NIT.
One player who impressed with her filthy jump serves and next-to-flawless touch on every ball was senior Sammi Sheppard, who lives in Brookline, NH and plays for Smash Volleyball out of Massachusetts. This was a long trip for Sheppard to make, but no more daunting than her journey back from a concussion that forced her to miss time and delay some of the progress she was making.
"I had an injury two years ago that kind of halted my recruiting process, and so I'm trying to get back into it," she said. "I'm a late recruit, doing anything I can, because my dream is to play the highest possible level of D-I volleyball. I'm trying to get my face and my skills in front of any coach possible, to hope someone will take me.
"They really weren't sure what happened; it didn't seem like a bad concussion, but it messed up my eyes. I basically had to relearn to play volleyball. I'm getting there; you can always improve. I've worked very hard."
As players streamed from court to court, coaches were digging into their notes and sharing thoughts with their peers as the session proceeded. Sheppard and dozens of other athletes had already done legwork before the trip to KC, contacting coaches and inviting them to the workout.
"You have to be organized. The biggest part of finding kids is having a list, doing your research ahead of time and knowing which kids have contacted you, which ones you're interested in," said Brian Gerwig, recruiting coordinator for the University of Houston. "One thing we do is the Eye-Check, where you stand on one end and watch all the courts, see whose head pops up and then go watch her.
"This is the best tournament in the country, hands down. This is our first week of recruiting; you find a high level of play, California and a lot of Texas teams, all the big clubs. You see all your kids early on, which is important, to see how they've progressed, if they've changed and added a skill set, or if they are the same player you saw before."
So, whether it's a late bloomer or an athlete riding a growth spurt or even just a rekindled passion for the sport, the Unsigned Player Workout makes sense for coach and player.
"We have a decent amount of kids who reach out before we come, so it's about watching them and plan ahead. You can't catch it all, but we focus on the class and the positions we are needing," said Nathan Davis, assistant coach at Dakota State, a NAIA program in Madison, SD. "Once they get past the general nervousness, things go better. For us, you can't just focus on the last pieces for 2020, you have to think about 2021 and '22 - you hope for the best and plan for the worst."