Donna Hall understands the story within the story found in the volleyball championship banners gracing the wall of Polk County Middle School’s gym.
Hall’s school-day duties as an English Language Arts teacher occasionally bring her into the gym, where she’ll sometimes take a moment to stare at the division and conference titles represented overhead.
Also an assistant volleyball coach at the school and the mother of two local standouts in the sport, Hall sees the connection represented by each.
“I found it interesting how much the middle school finishes were strong predictors of how the high school team would do in the future,” Hall recently recalled. “In 2008, PCMS won the conference and, in 2011, another middle school team won a division title. Fast forward a year to 2012 and Coach (Heather) Claussen and her (high school) team went all the way to the state semifinals, making school history.
“The next PCMS conference title came under Brandy Alm with an undefeated season in 2013. Last and this year’s seniors were a part of that team. Many of those girls had pursued travel ball outside of the county and had a wealth of talent and experience to bring to the table. The next banner at PCMS was earned with a conference championship in 2015 under the direction of Matt Russell. This team was comprised of this year’s (high school) juniors and sophomores. The last conference title, again with Coach Russell, was in 2016. The team was made of this year’s sophomores and freshmen.
“This year’s high school team made it farther than ever, the state championship. The winning ways started years ago and continues at the high school level.”
Continuing, even growing, that success is one reason a group of local parents decided five years ago to launch Polk County Volleyball Club. What perhaps seemed a noval idea in 2014, forming a travel program in a single small county, has grown into a club fielding teams in five age groups this year and bringing home championships while competing against teams from metro areas such as Charlotte and Charleston.
The club is helping give younger players in the county their first taste of competition beyond the leagues of Polk County Parks and Recreation as well as their first introduction to Polk County High head coach Molly Hill. It’s providing an outlet for PCHS players to continue to compete together in the offseason, to build crucial teammwork and timing.
And PCVC may well be putting a foundation in place to ensure that a few more banners will find their way to the gym walls of Polk County Middle School and Polk County High School.
Six years ago, while driving her daughter, Sydney, to travel club practices in Hendersonville, Renae Waldman had a realization.
“We had to travel for three practices a week, two to three hours each, plus weekend tournaments,” Waldman said. “The expense was great both financially and in its lack of convenience.
“She played with girls on teams from various schools across WNC, only one from Polk, and I thought how great it would be to have a locally-based club which would allow all the Polk girls to play together in the school’s offseason while also improving their chemistry and relationships with each other on and off the court.”
And, so, the idea for PCVC was born.
Waldman, Tracy Becker and other parents organized the program in late 2014, with nine girls signing up for the initial season. The parents recruited Claussen, by then a teacher at Chase High in Rutherford County, to coach the team. They quickly got an education in the ins and outs of running a travel program.
“That first year we were just trying to figure it all out and fortunately had so much assistance from a great group of parents that stepped in to help,” Waldman said. “We pitched our idea to the school administration, our goal of keeping Polk players local and playing together in the club season while making it more affordable so all the girls can participate. This would ultimately strengthen our school teams.
“Polk County Schools graciously allowed us use of their facilities, which helped us tremendously, as well as community support in the form of business sponsorships, donations and parent volunteers. The whole community offered so much support those first couple of years and continues to this day, which has contributed to PCVC’s growth and success.”
The growth has been remarkable – PCVC has added an age group each year, fielding teams this season in the 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17-year-old divisions. Occasionally players from the 13 and 14 teams compete as one, with the 16s and 17s also joining to form PCVC Blue for some tourneys.
Interest has reached the point where PCVC has been forced to hold tryouts for teams and scramble to find a place for those teams to practice.
“The biggest challenges have been our ability to get court time, since there are now so many teams, as well as working around the schools’ other sports teams, and also having to turn away players,” Waldman said. “We honestly want every girl to have an opportunity to take part in PCVC, but in the past couple of seasons, we have had so many girls interested in each age group we have had to hold tryouts and unfortunately turn away players.”
Members of that 2015 debut team, including Sydney Waldman, are preparing to play their final tournament this weekend for PCVC. Renae Waldman has a younger daughter, Ella, who is also involved with the club, but other parents who are now veterans of running PCVC are likely nearing their end of their tenure. That has prompted the entire group to think about the club’s future.
“We are already in discussions about creating more of a long-term administrative board structure so PCVC can continue to thrive long after my girls have graduated,” Waldman said. “As long as interest remains strong and parents, coaches and Polk County Schools are willing to participate and support our organization, PCVC will continue to thrive.
“I would love to continue with our five core age groups, but our high school teams may grow to three or have more combined age groups since that is how the teams are comprised in high school. The ultimate goal is to keep PCVC as an affordable option so all girls can participate, all while making the school teams better.
“We would also like to continue a partnership with Polk Recreation, not competing with them but working with them. Our high school PCVC players have volunteered for the Recreation Department in the past with clinics and evaluations as well as being coaches and officials.”
And the program has even begun putting itself on a national stage.
“We envision more trips to Junior Nationals in Florida each June for those players interested, last year taking one team, this year hopefully two,” Waldman said. “Eventually we would love to give every team this opportunity by figuring out a way to make it affordable and feasible. As always, volunteering, support and participation is key.”
Molly Hill came to Polk County with a mission.
“I would tell people that I wanted to put Polk County on the map and make us known for volleyball because I came from a very well-renowned school,” Hill said. “You think about West Henderson and you think about volleyball. I wanted to do that here and I wanted people to think of us.”
With 100 wins in five seasons and a state runner-up finish in 2018, Hill has certainly made great strides in doing just that.
She acknowledges how important PCVC has been in that quest.
“They are getting constant reps, constant touches, we’re playing year-round,” Hill said. “Of course they’re getting time off and they’re getting a break from the kind of demand of school ball. But we’re getting opportunities to still play together and to still develop connections and relationships. It’s really important with setters to have that good connection with all of our hitters and that’s not going away.
“I think it’s important for these younger girls to have me as their coach because next year, or two years from now, I’m going to be their coach. I just think the club aspect of it, it’s all positives. It’s obviously helping because you look at these upcoming seniors and that’s the group that we started PCVC with and it’s just a dominating class.”
Hill has coached the 14-year-old team since PCVC’s second season. This year two of her former players, Savannah Ross and Kara Overholt, are coaching, as are Hall and PCHS assistant coach Jon Ezell. All five teams have stepped up their level of competition at times this season, often competing in what is known as the power league, the highest rung of club play. Decisions such as that, Hill thinks, will help ensure that Polk County’s trip to the state 1A championship game this past season was not a one-time occurrence.
“We can always get better, we can always do more and we can always develop more,” Hill said. “I feel like this year with club, we’re really doing that. We’re kind of taking it to the next level as far as competition-wise. You know we’ve been primarily competing in club level tournaments where this year we’re competing in power level tournaments, which is the highest division.
“And with the high school age group, they’re playing in that power league. I was talking to Renae and Sydney Waldman and Sydney said that the team they lost to in the championship (during a recent tournament) was the best team that those girls have ever played in school or club. Playing teams like that, we might lose, but it was a close game and it’s making us better and I just feel like it’s preparing us for those bigger teams that we’re going to see in playoffs.
“Sometimes, in the beginning, all you see is well, we lost. But in the long term and in the big picture, it’s making you better. That’s kind of our goal and our mentality this year is to push ourselves with club, especially those girls that are going into the high school age group. So that 14 and up age group, we are really pushing to get those girls in as high of level tournaments as we can and doing things like going to nationals in Florida and just being involved as much as we can getting them as many opportunities. I think it’s just going to prepare us more for playoffs and for being right there back at state next year.”
The competition is also breeding confidence, and Hill believes that may be one of the biggest reasons that more banners may soon line the walls of Polk County Middle School and Polk County High School, courtesy in part of Polk County Volleyball Club.
“I think that our success and the positivity that we build through volleyball here and what we stand for and what we’re developing as a program, I just think that that’s attractive to these young girls,” she said. “They want to be involved. And these parents see how good of a thing this is so they want their kid involved.
“It’s always been a goal of mine to make it to state. I thought since my first year here that we had the talent to do so. But, again, I think it goes back to making sure that these girls know that, yes, we are small, this is little Polk County, nobody really knows anything about us. But you are just as talented as those big schools in Asheville, those big schools in Henderson County, those big schools in Raleigh. That’s something I have a conversation about with my high school girls every year. The confidence, you’ve got to portray it, we’ve got to walk in to a different school knowing we’re here to play, let’s show them who we are.
“So I think we’ve always had the talent to be at state and to kind of make ourselves known. I think what lacked in past years was confidence. But we’re getting there.”
Thanks in part to the small club with large dreams.