ST. GEORGE — A local volleyball club is providing players from inside and out of Southern Utah an opportunity to play the game during a time when such opportunities are scarce.
Through the Southern Utah Volleyball League, 435 Elite volleyball is hosting bi-monthly youth tournaments, ranging in age from 12u to 18u. The tournaments balance a high level of competition with a jovial, friendly environment, encapsulating the need for an outlet for teens during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We haven’t been able to do a lot of the big tournaments, those have all been canceled,” 435 Elite player Jenna Thorkelson said. “So that’s kind of sad, but thankfully we can still play here in St. George and still have a little bit of normalcy in our lives.”
Thorkelson is one of a few players at Snow Canyon High School to do their offseason training with 435. Notedly, Region 9 2020 co-MVP and Utah State commit Katie Langford brought her lethal spike to 435. Players also come from all over Region 9, including Pine View, Dixie and Desert Hills.
It’s a program capable of producing high quality athletes that move on to play the next level, but it also promotes personal growth and family with a Hawaiian flair. The club doesn’t turn players away, and skill levels range from beginners just learning the game to competing at a national level for collegiate scholarships. At one time, a group of pre-teen beginners will struggle to hit the ball over net, while on the other side of the room divider, potential Division I athletes execute set plays at a high level. The club’s motto is “Ohana,” which means “family.”
“Growing up in Hawaii, the culture is really what we focus on with the girls,” 435 cofounder and club director Josh Lui said. “Teaching them about Ohana, teaching them what it means to be part of a family and learning to trust the other girls. Volleyball is just a little step in their lives, they’re learning life lessons through volleyball … It’s just about surrounding ourselves with good people and being open to learning.”
Lui started the club after running one in his native Hawaii. He launched 435 with partner Vince Tauanuu after coaching in St. George and trying to bring a club to Southern Utah from Hawaii.
The club is currently organizing bi-monthly tournaments at the Grafton building at the Hurricane fairgrounds. In the midst of a pandemic, it gives the club multiple entrances and enough open space to maintain social distancing while putting up four volleyball courts with simultaneous action. The events currently only allow three spectators per team.
COVID-19 also put the club in a unique position with an advantageous ability to host events. Southern Utah’s comparatively relaxed restrictions allow teams to travel from out of state. On Feb. 20, a team from Washington state competed. It was only their second time on the court in a year, Lui said.
In the context of the relief of simply being able to play, along with the noticeable efforts the organizers put in, the tournaments are light-hearted but still competitive. Coaches will trade friendly barbs with each other in between sets. Lui, who is launching a korean-barbecue style food truck in the near future, assists with preparing meals for sale for the benefit of the club. It resembles a field day.
“Win or lose, we’re all family in the end,” 435 assistant director Jason Sedang said. “It’s good that way. The atmosphere, you can feel it. It’s calm and good fun.”
The level of competition is still there. For a lot of teams, this is the best they can do in terms of competing against top talent. As Thorkelson said, those national tournaments with college recruits aren’t there. It is coming to be time to roost for some of the club’s long-term players that started younger and are reaching the age where it’s time to think about college and trying to find a spot on a collegiate roster. Some of their coaches played on Division I teams, including Raelene Elam, who will compete for the sitting volleyball team for Team USA in the next Paralympics.
The next tournament at Grafton will be March 12 and 13, with a 16-team field of 14u players. More info about 435 Elite can be found on its website.
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