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VOL 3. NO. 9 Monday, October 25 - Sunday, November 6, 2004
Sheila Weaver's On A Mission to Expand Access In Volleyball
By Avonie BROWN
Volleyball is one of Sheila Weaver's passions and she is on a mission to share the experience and the benefits of the game with young girls in the Washington metropolitan area.

Since 1982 Weaver has been teaching and coaching at Sidwell Friends School in northwest D.C. And her credentials are impressive. In 1995 the {Washington Post} named her Volleyball Coach of the Year for leading the Quakers to a 28-2 record, and for capturing the Independent School League (ISL) title and the second straight ISL tournament championship. Under her tutelage the Quakers have won five ISL titles, and in addition, she has been named Outstanding Teacher of the Year at Sidwell Friends.

Add to that the fact that two of the most highly recruited high school players in the nation last year to come from Weaver's championship varsity volleyball team are her daughter Cheryl, and Candace NcNamee. Both were three-time D.C. area All-Met Volleyball players and three-time members of the U.S. Junior National team. These two young sisters successfully made the transition from high school sports to NCAA Division I volleyball on full scholarship.

When Long Beach State head coach Brian Gimmillaro chose Cheryl, a 6-2 middle blocker, as its number one recruit last fall, it was validation of her successful high school and club career. "I believe Cheryl to be the #1 high school prospect in the country," said the 49er head coach. "I've looked forward to the opportunity of coaching her since she was in the eighth grade. I believe she could ultimately be considered alongside some of the great players who have performed here at Long Beach State in the past, like Tara Cross and Danielle Scott."

Long Beach State ended its 1998 season with an undefeated 36-0 record and as the NCAA Division I champions.

"It was exciting as a freshman to be a champion, I guess you couldn't ask for anything more. I was just happy to be on the team that won," said Cheryl. She went on to explain that even though she did get an opportunity to play early in the season because some of the team starters were hurt, she was just as happy learning the new style of play from the bench.

"I think I learned more when I wasn't playing because when you're in the pressure of a game situation you revert to the way you used to play. So sitting out most of the season helped me to learn more and to focus on next year where I can put the things I've learned into play," Cheryl explained.

On the other hand, Candace was thrown into the starting rotation at the University of California-Berkeley from the very beginning. "Leading the team first off was a lot of pressure but the team was very, very supportive," said Candace. "Coming in there and making an immediate impact on the team, because I was the starting setter, forced me into a situation where I was relearning everything while I was expected to be a team leader at the same time. There was just a lot more things for me to learn, relearn and focus on and still be a bigger part of the team."

Even though she had to endure the longer and more intense collegiate season, which may have put a toll on Candace's body physically, she didn't let that stop her from establishing some impressive stats. She was the only UC-Berkeley player to play in every game of every match this past season, and her 1101 assists ranks ninth on the school's career assist list. Her 10.69 assists per game is also 10th in the Pac-10.

To have two players of this caliber come out of the same volleyball program at the same time is truly impressive, yet successes like these are virtually unknown in the community. Weaver welcomes publicity, not for selfish gains, but to educate young girls and their parents about the program's advantages. She believes that with early exposure, the right coaching and a commitment to doing the work, similar successes are awaiting other African- American girls in the region.

Unfortunately, volleyball lacks the popular appeal that surrounds other more traditional sports like basketball and track and field. This has not phased Weaver, instead she founded the D.C. Juniors Girls Junior Olympic Volleyball Club, a 501C3 non-profit organization, in 1993 to give African-American girls in the metropolitan area access to the opportunities that the sport has to offer.

The volleyball club circuit is invaluable if players are to be noticed for collegiate or national opportunities. "Coaches don't go to high schools to scout for players because the level of play is usually so low. It is more efficient for them to go to tournaments where there are 300-400 teams competing," said Weaver. "That's where they see you and if you aren't on that circuit you really have no access and that's what's so disheartening to me because there is a whole world of opportunities that these girls have no idea about."

Prior to starting D.C. Juniors Weaver said she and other parents had to take their girls to play in clubs in Montgomery County and other surrounding areas where there was just a sprinkling of black girls playing for predominantly white clubs. "What we wanted to do was find and bring together the best African-American talent within the city and in the surrounding areas. This would make it easier for us and the girls because there wouldn't be the obstacles of traveling way out there and they wouldn't have to endure the attitudes of parents who weren't always sociable," she said. Further, establishing a program with good coaching right here in the city, meant more exposure for girls in the area to the sport and that would translate into a whole team of African-American players, not just one or two girls.

"There is no more impressive feeling than to walk into a tournament, which typically is predominantly white, with 10 African-American girls over 6 feet tall who can do it all on the court. It is a very imposing image that we present and the key is the girls get noticed for the quality of their play," said Weaver. "Our players get noticed by coaches when we attend tournaments because D.C. Juniors has gotten a reputation of developing good players." Players like Nashaunda Harper (Howard), Janee Hayes (Duke), Candace Green (Yale) and Alisha Weaver, another of Weaver's daughters (Clark-Atlanta), are some of the alumni of D.C. Juniors now attending college on volleyball scholarships.

The D.C. Juniors program is unique and since there is nothing like it anywhere in the country, the group is being used as an example for other teams to follow. USA Volleyball, the governing body for the sport, realized that in order to compete internationally they needed to do what soccer did-grass roots level recruiting. The Starlings Program is one strategy being used. The program is designed to give kids at a younger age a start in the sport regardless of their level of play. The program is concentrated in inner city communities. This is the second year that D.C. Juniors will have a Starlings team, and they are hoping to field at least two teams, one of 10-14 year olds and another for age 14 and up.

While the Starlings program is targeting the first obstacle-opening exposure and access to inner city communities throughout the country, the next major stumbling block is the cost of participation. Club fees range from $500-1000 per year to cover the cost of gym rental, uniforms and tournament entry fees. Add to that the expense of traveling, sometimes as far as Las Vegas and the cost can be prohibitive. "We do fundraising through the year to offset added costs but it is expensive," admits Weaver. "But the Starling's program is addressing it on a national level by giving us the tools in terms of fundraising proposals that we can take to foundations and corporations." However, for those parents who see the bigger picture, there is the recognition that this is an investment in their children's future. And from all available studies, the benefits are much more than physical.

"It's a positive experience that surrounds them with other positive people and those with the attributes to become good players will surface and they will be noticed and those around them will reinforce the positive things they are doing," said Weaver.

Involvement in sports will also teach girls leadership skills, self-esteem, discipline, how to win and lose and responsibility to their team and to themselves. Girls involved in sports have been shown to have a decreased tendency to try drugs, alcohol and to get pregnant. They also do better academically and the possibility of receiving an athletic scholarship, which can range as high as $30-40,000 per year, could mean immeasurable benefits for girls and their families.

Weaver takes every opportunity to get people to look at the opportunities that volleyball can bring. She has approached both Boys and Girls Clubs and The Girl Scouts with the hopes of reaching some of the girls they serve. The Starlings program currently operates out of the Tacoma Recreation Center in Langley Park and she is also hoping to bring the program to Dunbar High School in the District. For more information on the activities of D.C. Junior and the Starlings Program please feel free to call Weaver at 202-537-2466. She welcomes the opportunity share with you the world of opportunities available in volleyball.

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