State champs embrace opportunity to give back
It wasn't long ago, the fall of 2002 to be exact, that Kelli Craig, Emily Goodlin, Natalie Uhart and Casey Welch shared the volleyball court as teammates at Lansing High School.
That fall, the foursome helped lead the Lions to a 38-2 record and the only state championship in program history.
Almost three years later, the foursome were reunited in the gymnasium at Lansing Middle School last week where they were helping LHS coach Julie Slater run her Team Always Volleyball Camp.
Uhart flew in from Long Beach, Calif., where she plays for national power Long Beach State University.
"She could be doing a lot of other things, but where is she? She's here helping and giving back to the sport she loves," Slater said of Uhart's return. "It's overwhelming that she would do that for us. I feel very honored."
The other three didn't have very far to travel, but all made working at the seventh- and eighth-grade camps a priority. Craig came back from Independence Community College where she helped the Pirates place fifth at the Junior College National Tournament. Goodlin will be a freshman on the volleyball team at nearby Johnson County Community College in the fall, and Welch will be a senior at LHS.
"They're all real busy, but it's awesome for all of them to help out," Slater said.
BACK IN TIME
Just how valuable have Julie Slater's volleyball camps been in building a juggernaut high school program? Ask the players who've been there.
Welch is a classic example of a year-after-year camper who hit it big. She had attended Slater's camps since she was in second grade. Her parents took her to watch high school matches every year, and she said that as a youth she aspired to play on the varsity squad at LHS.
"I started going to camp a year younger than everybody else and I got a lot from it," Welch said. "It helped me more than anything, other than playing club."
Welch improved so much that during her freshman season she cracked the starting lineup for the No. 1-ranked team in the state. LHS has been to the state finals four times in school history and Welch eventually became the first freshman to start for Lansing in the state championship.
CHAMPIONS START EARLY
Craig, Goodlin and Uhart attended Slater's volleyball camps while growing up just like Welch did. All said it played a valuable role in their development on the court and all agreed that by starting camp in elementary school, they were able to develop the skills that helped them win the 2002 state title.
"I think one of the reasons Lansing is so successful is because we put so much time into the younger girls because we know that's when it starts," Craig said. "We get started at this younger age because that's when we can produce state championship teams."
Goodlin said it was unusual for volleyball camps to offer such individual attention to players at a young age. She said that is what always has made Slater's camp unique.
"I don't know of another coach that helps with such younger kids and is so committed," Goodlin said. "She could have easily had a seventh- and eighth-grade camp together, but she splits them in two so they'd get more individual help."
Slater's third- through sixth-grade camp two weeks ago attracted 40 players, and her seventh-grade camp had 30. The eight-grade session last week had 26. At each camp there were a few college players coaching alongside Slater and assistant coaches Rhonda Lang and Amy Turner, which meant about one coach for every five players.
Craig said college players always have helped out at Slater's camps. That's the way it was when Craig was growing up. She said that made a big difference because it gave her role models to look up to on the volleyball court.
"It helped a lot because you really value the things that they say to you more than what (other people tell you)," she said. "(The girls) see what hard work and dedication can do and where that can put you in a few years."
A CHANCE TO GIVE BACK
United by the bond that comes with winning a state championship, Craig, Goodlin, Uhart and Welch said it was important to them to volunteer each year at Slater's camp. After all, that's where they got their start, and volleyball has taken them a long way. Three will be on college rosters in the fall and Welch expects to play in college as well.
All four said they would like to help Lansing's next generation of volleyball players improve and achieve their dreams.
"We've been through everything that the little girls are going through," Uhart said. "We've been through everything and we want them to succeed as much as we have, so it makes us feel good to come back and give them some of our knowledge, have fun and become better players."