FORMER HAWKS SERVING AND HITTING STRONG IN EUROPE
April 25, 2012
By: Dave Vatz
For most volleyball players, their careers are over after the final match in their senior season. But for three Hawks, their days at the Hytche are done, but their time on the court is far from over.
Three former University of Maryland Eastern Shore players, Caylin Woodward, Whitney Johnson and Samantha Chukwura, are in the professional ranks in Europe playing volleyball. All three played for UMES head coach Don Metil and associate head coach Eric Hammond in their time in Princess Anne.
Caylin Woodward was the first of the three to head overseas after playing in Princess Anne from 2006 through 2009. A two-time All-MEAC selection, the outside hitter finished with 1,132 kills, 1,313 digs and 176 services in her four years, earning no less than 235 kills, 275 digs and 33 aces each season. With some overseas teams looking at her, she decided to head to Gislaved Volleyball Klubb in Sweden.
"I thought only the elite volleyball players in America had a shot at playing professional ball in Europe," says Woodward; "I figured I would never be given a shot. Little did I know, there are thousands of teams in Europe just waiting to get American players."
After working with Bring It Promotions, the largest professional volleyball agency in the world, Woodward signed with a new team, Reggio Calabria S.S. Cuore, in Italy, in the C series. She is not the only American on that team: Megan Gilroy, a middle hitter from Troy University, and Kelsey Wirt, an outside hitter who played for Vanguard University, also play for Reggio.
"Volleyball was all I had ever known; it was my life," says Woodward, "Every weekend, multiple weeknights, when friends were going out and having fun, I was in the gym working and hitting volleyballs."
Before Woodward left for Reggio, she played with a former teammate at Gislaved, Whitney Johnson. After transferring from the University at Albany, Johnson was a three-time all-conference player and the MEAC Player of the Year in 2007. The outside hitter finished her UMES career with 1,224 kills and 120 total blocks over three years.
"Playing professional volleyball is not what I thought I would be doing in a million years," says Johnson, "but the Lord has blessed me with the skills to get me here and it is an awesome experience."
Johnson was named MVP of her league in her second year playing and is thrilled to be able to keep playing the sport she loves.
"I didn't want to give up playing, just watching volleyball made me want to play."
Though it was only for part of one season, Johnson and Woodward playing together brought a lot to Gislaved.
"It was strange to have a familiar face on my team in a foreign country," says Woodward; "I asked around to see if we could get her to play on our team, we finally had a solid attacker on the outside that could crush the ball."
"It was definitely cool playing with someone that I have been playing with for three years previously," adds Johnson; "That definitely helped my transition from being so far away from home. We both have that same Hawk spirit so we always bring our A-game."
While Woodward played in Italy and Johnson was in Sweden, Samantha Chukwura was finishing up her career with UMES. The Hawks middle blocker played from 2007 through 2010, earning 753 kills and 203 total blocks in her time. This past season, Chukwura got her chance, earning a spot on Emeve Laboratorios Nupel Club in Spain, a member of the Superliga 2 Conference.
"I knew I wanted to play when teammates my senior gained interest and went to play," says Chukwura; "I say thanks to Caylin and Whitney for paving that way for me."
Chukwura plays in a league that encompasses all of Spain, including the cities of Madrid and Barcelona, which is made up mainly local Spanish players.
"There aren't many for foreign players in Superliga 2 due to the economic crisis that hit Spain," explains Chukwura; "To bring in a foreigner is very expensive, so [teams] have become more local than in the past."
For these three, playing professional volleyball is very different from the matches at the Hytche. The matches themselves, plus the life style that comes with it, are very different than in the United States.
"There is much less structure and discipline administered by the coaching staff," says Woodward; "Over here, you are given a lot more freedom to play the game how you play it, not under your current coach's philosophy."
"It is a little different from college because now this is actually your job," adds Chukwura; "You realize how college sports spoiled us in things we took for granted."
In the professional ranks, most teams will play matches only once per week, often on weekends and on rare exceptions other days. Not only is nearly every weekend taken up with matches, but a season can last nine months of the year. This can leave a lot of free time during the week for these three when they are not practicing in the evening.
"A non-gameday can be busy or chill, it just depends on the day," says Johnson; "I work in a school, and we teach the little kids how to play volleyball and sometimes go into the classrooms to help with the English lessons."
"I also tutor English for two days a week, and three days a week I do English conversation with some practicing for an exam," adds Chukwura; "A normal day for me here is slow-going at times, so I spend some of my time in the cafeteria or in the library using Wi-Fi to talk with family and friends."
"I do not find it difficult to juggle the free time and volleyball time," Woodward says; "I am in an Italian course with the other two Americans on my team, plus we usually go to the gym after class and either wander the city, rest at our apartment or study until practice."
While all of the athletes do take time to learn the native language of the countries they play in, knowledge of English by many Europeans, plus having other Americans on the team, helps them with this obstacle.
When they take the court to play, it is very different from the American game. Rules and personnel are different in matches overseas. In the United States, players will often train in their roles, and with many substitutions, role players can be used in certain situations.
"In matches here, there are usually only two referees, sometimes just one. They are trained to call the lines without having line judges, which leads to many questionable rulings," explains Woodward; "There are also fewer substitutions allowed, which forces players over here to play in all six rotations and be strong rotational players."
"The rules are a little different, like if you pass a ball and it hits the ceiling, it is automatically out of bounds, and you have to be signaled by the up ref to step on the court," adds Johnson.
"The middle hitter has more responsibility on the court, and that was a rough adjustment for me being that my weakness is setting," says Chukwura, "It was a challenge, but I overcame."
The three often played in front of big crowds in Princess Anne, even getting upwards of a thousand fans during a match. It is not consistently large where they are in Europe, but it can still get very loud.
"My team is in a small city, and volleyball is not big here so the games are very personal with family and other players in the club," Chukwura says; "In the games, people bring drums and horns, so it can become very loud and rowdy."
"The crowds are normally a good size, it just depends on the size of the gym," says Johnson, "Some are much bigger than others, which makes it seem like a lot of people are there."
"The C series is not the highest league, and therefore does not gather the crowds that the A series does," Woodward mentions, "our gyms probably hold about 200 fans, but at only scrimmages, we have had over 50 people. When I've gone to matches to scout other teams, some gyms have been crowded to the point where people are standing near the doors just to watch!"
So where do these ladies see themselves in five years?
"When I am done playing professional volleyball, that is, when my body says it's time to rest, I plan to be a graduate assistant somewhere and obtain a Master's Degree," says Woodward; "I will become a teacher eventually, but I am torn as to what grade level I want to teach."
"In five years, I would like to still be playing, but if I wasn't playing I would definitely still be doing something with the sport, whether it is coaching or giving private lessons," states Johnson.
"I hope to see myself doing something else with sports," mentions Chukwura; "I plan to study physical therapy and I would love to stay with athletics."
Whatever the path is for Woodward, Johnson and Chukwura, these three represent UMES well in Europe and continue to show Hawk pride on and off the court.