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updated: 9/15/2011 10:28 PM

Volleyball would be stronger with diversification

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Ashley Crawford played several sports growing up and participated in her first volleyball camp in the sixth grade. She joined her first team the next year.

"Volleyball is very competitive and I love team sports," said Crawford, now a senior on Naperville North's team. "It just seemed the right fit for me."

Crawford and teammate Sami Scroggins seem to be in the minority there. That is, African-American girls playing volleyball in DuPage County.

In a survey of schools around the county, African-American girls made up just 3.5 percent of varsity volleyball rosters. Half of the schools responding to the survey did not have any African-American girls on its roster; Naperville North was the only with more than one.

But you don't need raw data to notice this.

Just go to any area match to realize just how predominantly white the teams are. It's no secret to coaches.

Hinsdale South's Lisa Martinez has had one African-American girl make it through her program completely in eight years coaching at the school. She has one on her varsity team now -- Alecia Kroeger -- who moved into the district this year from Nebraska. It is hard to believe from a school where African-Americans make up almost 15 percent of its student population.

"We have the kids walking the hallways, trust me," Martinez said. "It is so frustrating."

Why is this?

Why is girls volleyball, among all other sports, so dominated by suburban schools with zero state championships won by Chicago Public League members?

It starts with opportunity, and by extension money. There is a perception that if you do not play club volleyball year-round you won't play high school volleyball beyond freshman year. And club volleyball costs money. Club dues can cost more than $2,000 annually per child, not even taking into account travel expenses to tournaments across the country. It's a tough squeeze for many middle-class families.

Hinsdale Central coach Sheralynn Kellough has talked to her husband about setting up a scholarship program for kids to provide money to play club year-round.

"I feel like it is becoming an elitist sport," Kellough said. "Unless you can drop thousands of dollars you're not going to find your way in. It shouldn't be that way. I feel that we are doing ourselves a disservice in not making it more accessible to play."

There is payoff in opportunity, and you need not look far to find it.

Neuqua Valley has had four African-American girls go on to play college volleyball in recent years.

Arielle Wilson played club with the Lions Juniors, starred at Proviso East and went on to win four national championships at Penn State. Wilson was introduced to volleyball in junior high, an early start that New Wave club co-director Deidre Dunbar said isn't always prevalent among young African-American girls.

"They don't know volleyball and by the time they are exposed in high school it is almost too late," said Dunbar, who played and now coaches at Westmont and started New Wave in 2005. "The huge thing is getting kids exposed to volleyball at a young age."

Rick Butler, owner and coach of Sports Performance, said he probably has 10 African-American girls out of 400 playing for his club teams -- and that number is up from past years.

As much as cost is an issue, Butler also believes there is also a cultural phenomenon in play.

Often the best African-American high school basketball players won't play volleyball. In other cases, like with Tameka Catchings and Candace Parker, they played volleyball up to a certain point before narrowing their focus to basketball.

The USA National women's volleyball team, on the other hand, is quite diversified. Destinee Hooker, considered one of the best volleyball players in the world and MVP of the 2011 FIVB World Championships, was an NCAA high jump champion at Texas.

"Volleyball coaches have said forever that you see these great African-American athletes in AAU basketball, but you don't see them in club volleyball," Butler said. "Candace Parker would have been a phenomenal volleyball player. A lot of times it is a cultural thing, what you have grown up doing."

Butler does believe that as the suburban population becomes more diversified, so too the number of African-American girls playing volleyball will rise.

But it is not there yet.

Dunbar holds herself personally responsible to get young African-American girls exposed to the sport, being a woman of color herself. Her and Wilson ran a camp for younger kids this summer.

Martinez hopes to get a youth program started in the area and said she will travel to try to get African-American girls to join.

Awareness is part of the solution.

"You got to hook the kids early, got to get them playing early, so there is interest in it," Martinez said. "Out of all the sports the potential to get money to go to colleges is huge in volleyball. People need to see the bigger picture."