When Sherry Connor was asked to coach a team of standout American high school volleyball players at an international tournament this summer, the Elizabeth resident and fourth-year head coach at United Faith Christian Academy was humbled by the offer.
It took her just a few moments to go from wondering “Why me?” to relishing the opportunity. As a former Charlotte 49ers player and founder of the NCVB volleyball club, Connor’s reputation has grown in the junior volleyball and AAU communities.
Connor spent a week in July in Croatia coaching an under-17 team in an event called the Global Challenge. Her squad comprised nine players from throughout the U.S., including her 15-year-old daughter Shannon Bradley, a United Faith sophomore.
Connor and Bradley now are applying their Europe experience to their high school team, hoping it will translate into a level of success United Faith has never known.
In 2011, Connor’s first year at United Faith, the Falcons lost all 16 matches. Last year, the team finished 11-9 and made the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 1A state playoffs for the second straight season.
With a veteran team of three seniors and two juniors, United Faith won its first three matches this season, dropping only one set. The Falcons are hoping to unseat Hickory Christian as the Southern Piedmont Athletic Association champions.
“In Europe, they don’t let anything hit the floor,” said Connor, 44. “They do crazy things. They train (players) that way.
“Early on, I told (the United Faith players) you have to get to that ball. We’ve become a scrappier team because of it.”
In 2011, Connor founded NCVB, which fields teams in indoor and sand volleyball and coordinates tournaments on both surfaces. NCVB has a membership of more than 70 players from ages 12-18 in the Charlotte region.
NCVB participates in AAU tournaments nationwide. Over the past couple years, Connor became friendly with NC AAU state chairwoman Dana Wall, who also is the coach at Salem College in Winston-Salem.
Connor was assigned to lead the U17 Augusta Blue team, named for a sponsoring apparel company. She and Wall selected players for the Global Challenge by scouting them at AAU tournaments around the country.
Players are required to pay their own way for the European trip. Shannon raised some of the thousands of dollars through an online fundraising website.
Though Connor had seen some of the players in action, she had not met most of them until they arrived on different flights in Europe.
From Nice, France, the team traveled then to Italy, where it played club teams in the cities of Savona and Carcare before moving on to Croatia.
In the seaside town of Pula, which borders the Adriatic Sea, 14 U.S. teams and 16 from Europe converged for the five-day tournament. Some of the best coaches from the U.S. were present, including former collegiate national champions and former Olympians.
Playing against top teams from the U.S. and some countries’ national teams, Augusta Blue finished 4-3 and placed eighth in its 14-team division.
Connor already has been invited to accompany a team to next year’s Global Challenge. She said she aspires to recruit more players from Charlotte and has talked of compiling an all-star team of players solely from North Carolina.
Shannon, an all-conference outside hitter, switched positions to play libero in Croatia because of an abundance of quality players at outside hitter.
“I will remember seeing all those different faces,” Shannon said. “The amount of pressure – I felt like I learned from it. Being able to play at a top level with all those girls …”
Shannon and her United Faith teammates have a key match coming up at Hickory Christian on Sept. 9.
Other Falcons players include seniors Taylor Riggs, Lacey Grandy and Hannah Adams, juniors Serena DeStefani and Taylor Murmann, sophomore Progress Ime and seventh-grader Andrea Abraham.