Volleyball has become a popular and successful sport at Eastwood Elementary in Elkhart.
Led by coach Gene Kessel – who has directed the program for five years – Eastwood won the city tournament last Thursday for the fourth straight year.
Eastwood beat Mary Feeser in the finals in two sets. The Wildcats advanced into the finals after beating Mary Daly on Thursday. On Wednesday, Eastwood opened the tournament with wins over Roosevelt and Hawthorne.
"Every year I've gotten lucky to get talented girls," said Kessel who owns a 52-3 record at the school. "It also definitely helps to get girls through the NIVA (Northern Indiana Volleyball Association) program. Through that program, I get skilled and very determined girls."
In the Michiana area, NIVA trains girls from the third grade level on up.
Kessel, who was a NIVA coach for two years before starting at Eastwood, said around 40 girls come out to tryouts every year and that there are no cuts. The program is split up into A and B teams. There are 14 to 16 girls on the A Team, which is more advanced and playing in the city tournament. The B Team is a group of less experienced fifth graders that are more of a junior varsity team.
"I had 20 girls dress and participate for the city tournament," Kessel said. "I brought a couple from the B team to give them some experience or if I needed them to fill in for somebody who was injured or sick.
"I never have a problem building a team. My job as a coach is to prepare the girls for middle school through our drills and practices."
Once the girls have graduated from elementary school they'll end up at either North Side Middle School or West Side Middle School. After that, the girls will probably attend the new Elkhart High School, which is the combining of Elkhart Central and Elkhart Memorial next fall.
Kessel coached current Elkhart Central freshman volleyball player Hannah Teich at Eastwood and NIVA.
"She's one of those players that I knew was going to go on and be a successful volleyball player at the middle school, high school and college level," Kessel said. "You can tell that about someone when you see their attitude, drive and love they have for the game. Every year I've had one or two players that I knew volleyball would be their sport."
Kessel said that boys are becoming more interested in volleyball.
This coming spring will mark the third year for boys volleyball at Eastwood.
"In the first year we had 10 to 12 boys," Kessel said. "Last year we had 22. This year, boys are already talking about the volleyball season. I've seen them at (girls) practice and they say they can't wait for the season. In the first year, boys had the attitude of volleyball being a girls sport. Things changed once they got past that and saw how much fun they had. It's catching on."