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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Part of the Club: Murpy, Ward groomed for volleyball stardom early on

Nestled deep into the snowy banks of Aurora, Ill., lies a gold mine of volleyball talent.

From the outside, it's nothing special. Painted with plain white exterior and blue roof, it looks more like an old warehouse than anything else.

But inside is one of nation's most elite volleyball training grounds.

Fields of red-and-blue-tiled courts, a weight room that would be the envy of most colleges and a trophy case bloated with medals and plaques.

Racks of decaled balls line the courts as athletes complete drills in boot camp-like fashion.

It's the kind of place where you shouldn't expect a trophy just for showing up.

Calling itself "the United States' most complete volleyball facility," the Sports Performance club turns out athletes who learn to do more than win - they dominate.

The girls' 18-and-under team has not lost a match in more than three years.

Only the best are invited to join the program - well, after a $15 tryout, that is - and only the elite are encouraged to stay.

Since its formation in 1990, Sports Performance has sent 392 athletes on to play college volleyball - 31 in the last year alone.

That, of course, is the goal. Not player development or even AAU national titles (they have won 61), but scholarships.

A Midwest recruiting machine that consistently turns out some of the nation's most prolific talent.

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At the highest level of competition, athletes practice five days a week, play nearly 100 matches a year and pay almost $1,900 in dues.

That's in addition to two mandatory weight room sessions a week.

It's in this world of tryouts, travel teams and constant practice that UF's two brightest new volleyball stars met.

When then-16-year-old Kelly Murphy showed up to try out for the club, she saw a familiar face on the other side of the net.

"I was like, 'Isn't that the really good blond girl who can jump serve?'" Murphy recalled. "She was the only one who could jump serve back then."

The friendly face belonged to Colleen Ward, whom Murphy recognized from a camp they had both attended three years earlier at Providence College.

As members of the women's elite club team, Kelly Murphy and Colleen Ward were perfect. They went 84-0 and won three consecutive AAU national championships in the three years they spent with the team after joining at the age of 16.

It's the same kind of success that would eventually draw them more than a thousand miles away from home.

A LOST CHILDHOOD

Early success came at a price for Murphy and Ward.

"For me, high school was just go to school, volleyball, home," Murphy said. "That was it."

There were no Friday night football games. No nights out at the movies. No school dances.

Weekends were spent like every other day - at the gym.

"We got to miss practice for our senior prom," Ward said. "That was a big deal."

The pair spent almost as much time at Sports Performance - more than four hours a day - as they did at school.

The strict atmosphere at the club was hard to deal with at times.

"You'd be nervous to even make a joke during practice," Ward said.

The commitment to playing for the club was especially hard on Murphy, who drove more than an hour every day from school in Joliet, Ill., to practice.

There were some good memories, too, though.

Summers were filled with travel.

From Madison, Wis., to St. Petersburg, Russia, volleyball has taken Murphy and Ward around the globe.

The pair jokes about the time they got lost driving in a rough area of Baltimore on their way to a tournament.

"I was sitting in the front seat with our coach, Ping, trying to figure out where we were going, and Murph was just sitting in the back talking with the other girls," Ward said. "I thought we were going to be lost forever."

It is the time spent with friends and teammates that Murphy and Ward remember most.

The two freshmen grace the cover of the club's most recent promotional material, but make no mistake: They've moved on from their past volleyball home.

TOUGH DECISIONS

Murphy and Ward now walk the streets of Gainesville, having traded in coats and earmuffs for T-shirts and sandals.

"I'll get to see snow for two weeks over Christmas," Murphy said. "That's enough."

As two of the nation's most coveted recruits, Murphy (ranked No. 1 nationally) and Ward (No. 7) could have had their pick of schools.

Scholarship offers rolled in from all across the country - Stanford, Nebraska, Michigan and Texas, among others.

Being the two best players on the nation's best club team had its perks.

There were magazine covers and newspaper articles. Awards came in by the handful, and the pair sat at the top of virtually every national ranking - All-County, All-State and All-American.

Murphy was even invited to the ESPYs after being named National Player of the Year by Gatorade.

"I shook Eli Manning's hand," she said glowing.

Although they played together, they chose separately.

Despite taking their recruiting trips to UF together, Murphy and Ward agreed they wanted to make their decisions independently. There was no package deal.

"We both knew that the recruiting process was an individual thing," Murphy said.

In her search for the perfect school, Murphy was looking for success on the court.

She wanted to win, and it seemed that UF and its 17 consecutive conference titles fit that description - the perfect spot for someone with Olympic and professional volleyball aspirations.

While on-court success was important to Ward, it was far from the deciding factor.

Academics were the focus for the future business executive.

"We each had certain things that we were looking for," Ward said. "We never said we were coming here exactly. We just said it would be fun if we both did."

UF coach Mary Wise admits even she didn't expect to land both Murphy and Ward.

"Even though they were on the same team and they were friends, they went about the recruiting very different," Wise said. "We thought that, in a perfect world, they would both come here, but very seldom do you get a perfect world in recruiting."

Wise didn't realize that perfection was something the pair had grown accustomed to.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Success comes naturally for Murphy.

By her senior year at Joliet Catholic High, she was the nation's top recruit, the Gatorade National Player of the Year and even homecoming queen.

"The last year of high school was really fun - especially after I made my decision," Murphy said.

She seems to have picked up right where she left off.

In the few short months she has spent at UF, Murphy has already found her way into the record books, becoming only the second player in school history to register a triple-double - Angie McGinnis, who has three, is the other.

For the setter who can do it all, college has been nothing more than the next step.

But she isn't the only one making a name for herself.

The transition has been nearly as seamless for her blond-haired buddy - even if she isn't the only one with a jump serve anymore.

Ward is a throwback, reminiscent of players from days gone by.

Maybe that's why Wise seems to be so enamored of her.

Often compared to former UF All-American Jenny Manz, Ward looks as though she was born to play volleyball.

"If you were going to build a perfect body for volleyball, it would be Colleen Ward," Wise said.

Most nights are spent in the dorm room they share at the Springs Complex now, usually watching TV. Their favorite show is "The Office."

Days are filled with class, practice and new friends.

The pair is at home here.

"Coming with Colleen has made it a lot easier," Murphy said.

The rigors and sacrifices of high school seem to have given way to the joys of college ball.

As the matches march on, it has become more and more apparent that UF struck gold with Murphy and Ward.

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