When her father received the bill for her club volleyball team each year, Ellycia Smalley did what many kids might in that situation. She made sure she was nowhere to be found.
As is the case with many other youth sports, volleyball has a concrete pipeline from high school to college and beyond, and it flows much more smoothly for families with disposable income. In the Prince George’s County Public Schools system (PGCPS), where Smalley attended high school, that pipeline doesn’t exist.
As the Maryland playoffs take place in the coming weeks, well-funded public schools are again expected to advance far into statewide tournaments, and private schools boast several of the top teams in the area. Most schools in Prince George’s County, with abbreviated schedules and inexperienced players, won’t do the same.
Volleyball has become a “rich kid” sport, according to multiple coaches and former players in the area, benefiting the institutions and the people with the most money. In Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties — where the median household income ranges between $100,000 and $110,000, compared with $85,000 in Prince George’s — girls begin to play in middle school at no cost.
The pandemic further damaged the accessibility of the sport for students in Prince George’s County.
This season, many teams have played only a handful of games when they planned on a complete schedule. Some teams haven’t been able to field enough players; others had their schedules slashed because officials aren’t showing up to their matches.
Even when schedules go off without issue, expectations for teams in the county are low, according to James Jackson, who has spent more than a decade at Largo High. Though the area has historically produced competitive teams and even professional athletes in other sports — leading to multiple coaches calling the county an “untapped market” for volleyball — most of the time, the newcomers who join Jackson’s team haven’t even been schooled on the basics.
“Football players, when they come in on the first day of practice and you tell them ‘high and tight,’ they know how to hold the ball already,” Jackson said. “My girls don’t know how to swing their arms. I could tell a freshman middle blocker to do a slide, and she would say, ‘Coach, what’s that?’ I could go to Montgomery County, I could ask the same exact thing. Those girls would know.”
In other counties, the presence of youth volleyball — and the willingness of parents to shell out money for club teams and private schools — helps girls progress to the sport’s next levels. But PGCPS doesn’t offer middle school volleyball, and the county has few established club programs.
Smalley, who graduated from high school last year, saw both ends of the spectrum. Before high school, she attended private schools. That was where she fell in love with the sport while playing at National Cathedral in the District and attending volleyball camps starting in the sixth grade. Then her dad pushed DuVal, a PGCPS program in Lanham, as a chance to “see the world” without becoming “spoiled.”
When she arrived there, Smalley realized how much of a head start she had on her teammates. The other freshmen hadn’t played in middle school, and the upperclassmen hadn’t played at the club level. She had done both.
“Time is one of the greatest assets anyone could have, so of course I was advantaged by being able to play three years earlier than most of them,” Smalley said. “But if they had started even a second earlier than me? I would probably be terrified of all of them and ducking for cover in the gym.”
Smalley endured two losing seasons at DuVal before it went 16-2-1 her junior year. She never got a senior season because of the pandemic. Now in her first year at Howard University, she recently joined the intramural team and plans to try out as a walk-on in 2022.
Smalley, who played for the Eastern division of one of the area’s top clubs, Metro Volleyball, said her family spent roughly $5,000 annually for a spot on the club team and travel costs. Other clubs, at a minimum, often exceed $1,200, according to multiple PGCPS coaches.
For families with the money and time, Smalley said, Metro Volleyball is usually worth it; it often creates a pathway to a college scholarship.
According to Metro Volleyball, 168 of its alums have played collegiately over the past 11 years. Among five PGCPS coaches interviewed by The Washington Post, none can remember a girl on their team who played collegiately or professionally without club experience.
But Ashley Horn, who coached Smalley at DuVal, said she had difficulty trying to push club volleyball to parents. Club schedules are rigorous, with practices two to three days per the week in addition to travel tournaments taking up many weekends in the spring. Though Metro East’s 2015-16 founding inside the county eased the club commute for PGCPS girls, it didn’t solve all problems.
“Most of the time [on club teams], parents are responsible for getting their kids to North Carolina or Delaware; there’s no universal transportation that will take the kids from one place to another,” Horn said, adding that she would send out information on low-cost opportunities in the area.
Smalley was one of just two girls at DuVal who played club volleyball during her freshman and sophomore years, though she said nearly every other player on the team wanted the opportunity. In lieu of more formal training, one of her teammates would go to the park and practice her serves on gravel. Sometimes a group of girls on the team would travel out to open courts and pay a $5 fee to scrimmage against strangers. Occasionally, they would attend mini pickup tournaments at a park in Lanham.
Smalley’s experiences on the club circuit were invaluable, she said, as she got more reps and had a chance to learn from the best teams in the country.
She recounted one conversation with a star setter from Texas who helped Smalley improve her ball control. “She told me to put my hands in a bucket of rice. … Who thinks of that?” Smalley said. “But it worked.”