Pair of suburban volleyball phenoms net global success with tournaments in Mexico, Croatia
Talk about living the dream.
Most high school volleyball players aspire to play in the state finals at Redbird Arena in Normal. Those who play club volleyball sometimes get a chance to travel out of state for AAU tournaments.
Ava Falduto and Abby Vander Wal one-upped all of that this summer.
Falduto, now a senior at IC Catholic Prep, and Vander Wal, a junior at Timothy Christian, spent their summer playing for the USA Volleyball U19 and U21 teams. Their travels included spending time in Croatia with the U19 team, where they won the gold medal, and then in Mexico City with the U21 squad, where they finished in sixth place.
At 5-foot-7 Falduto, who is committed to Penn State, is a dual position player. She's one of the best liberos in the state but she also plays an outside hitter position for ICCP, which finished second in Class 2A last year.
On the U19 team, she played mostly as a defensive specialist, but then was the starting libero for the U21 squad. In Mexico, she racked up the third-best overall stat line for any libero, with 105 successful receptions in 117 attempts.
"I had an incredible summer," said Falduto, who was joined by her parents, John and Jen, both in Croatia and in Mexico.
"I played tons of volleyball. June was filled with a lot of lake house trips and fun with friends, but July was a volleyball grind. I started off with nationals with my 1st Alliance 17 Gold team, where we took third in the nation. Then I got to train with my IC volleyball team before heading off to Colorado to train with USA Volleyball. I had the honor of going to Croatia and Mexico with the U19 and U21 teams and finishing off my summer with those teams was a dream come true"
USA coach Tom Hogan praised Falduto's performance.
"Ava was the heartbeat of our team at the U21 World Championships," he said. "The fire and passion she brings to the game energized our team and contributed greatly to our success. Ava's game grew over the course of the tournament as she faced professional and national team athletes from all over the world, and she finished the tournament as one of the top defensive players despite being several years younger than the competition. I am very proud of the way Ava represented USA, and I look forward to watching her grow through the USA NTDP program."
Vander Wal had a ton of success as well, especially in Croatia, where she was named MVP of the event. She finished fifth overall in scoring and in attacking. Her hitting percentage for the tournament was .631, which is pretty amazing. She was also in the top 20 in service aces. She played every set except for the match against Mexico, where she didn't play.
"This summer was absolutely incredible," said Vander Wal, a 6-3 outside hitter who is the daughter of Steve and Kristi Vander Wal.
"I learned so much in such a short amount of time and got so close with all the girls. The coaching staff at both U19 and U21 were amazing and winning gold at U19 was definitely a highlight. Mexico was challenging and the competition was very high level but it was so much fun and an amazing learning experience. I'll never forget it."
Hogan also sang praises about Vander Wal, who recently committed to Texas.
"Abby is a premier player in the USA National Team Development Program with Olympic potential," Hogan said. "Abby's physical play accompanied by her high-level platform control contributed greatly to our team's success at the World Championships. On top of her skill and potential, Abby is a selfless team player who represented our country with pride and class."
Now it's back to the high-school grind for Falduto and Vander Wal. Their teams met in a sectional final last year, with ICCP outlasting the Trojans 20-25, 25-12, 25-16.
"My high school team definitely has high goals and standards for ourselves this season," Falduto said. "Coming off a loss in the state final last season has fueled us tremendously for this season. We have a lot of work to do to get back into rhythm and it will not be easy, but we are determined to get back to that state final."
Falduto acknowledges the challenges ahead of her and the Knights.
"It will definitely be an adjustment coming back to the high school level and taking on a different position from the international level, but I think I will be able to bring back some of my experience and what I have learned and bring ICCP volleyball up to another level," she said. "I am really excited to be back with this team, and I know we will reconnect and find our groove quickly."
Vander Wal is energized for the high school season as well.
"This high school season I think we have a great chance to make some noise," she said. "I couldn't be more excited to be back to work with my teammates. I feel like a goal we all have is to win our conference and play the best volleyball we can."
John Radtke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.