If there’s no question that volleyball is on the rise in Sussex County, then there’s no question that rising Selbyville Middle School eighth-grader Raychel Ehlers is helping the cause.
As a seventh-grader this past fall, Ehlers was a co-captain and one of the most instrumental players on the SMS squad that went undefeated during their first-ever season.
“I’ve never see a player with the work ethic that Raychel has,” said SMS head volleyball coach Sally Craig, who has coached for more than 30 years.
“She lives and breathes volleyball and is quite an accomplished player for her age. Ability-wise, she could be playing for a varsity team at the high school level.”
This past May, Ehlers took that ability and tried out for the High Performance team, in hopes of landing a spot on the regional or national team and chance to get special training with some of the nation’s top volleyball coaches while competing in the High Performance Championship tournament in California.
While she may have missed the cut initially, as fate would have it, she’d get the call as an alternate after a player from the Chesapeake regional team couldn’t make the trip.
“I was really excited,” Ehlers said of when she first got the news. “It was so last-minute that we had to make a decision quick. I couldn’t believe my parents agreed to let me go.”
After finding a way to make it work, Ehlers found herself on the West Coast this past July, in Hermosa Beach, Calif., for the High Performance Beach Championship.
“I was nervous when I realized I was actually going, because I had no idea what to expect,” she said.
As a member of a regional team, Ehlers was still set to go up against players from the national team. And while the tournament showcased some of the top volleyball players from all over the country, Ehlers said that most of the national team comprised players from California, who were tough on the courts.
“The national team girls were especially tough,” she explained. “California has an advantage, because they can play beach year-round and they have tournaments all the time, so they have a lot more experience. But every team was really good.”
With two days of training before the actual tournament and working out with the Chesapeake regional coaches for two three-hour session per day, Ehlers developed some new skills, including “block base defense.”
Along with facing some heightened competition, she said that she hopes that the experience made her a better player, but that she still has a long way to go to get to where she wants to be.
“I think by going to play out in California I learned a lot about beach volleyball and how good a lot of people are,” she explained. “I still have a lot to learn. I want to now especially work on my vertical jump, so that I can jump higher in the sand and hit the ball harder, like the girls in California did.”
As soon as she got home, she started working with trainer Chuck Stewart at Energy Gym and Trevor Hurd from Coastal Athlete in Bethany Beach, developing her strength and conditioning for certain drills and for the upcoming SMS season.
She’s also an active member of the Delaware Volleyball Academy (DVA) beach team and has been for the past two years.
While she said she hopes the hard work will pay off in terms of her own volleyball career, Ehlers is also hoping to see the sport continue to grow in her hometown and the surrounding area.
“I’ve been told that beach volleyball is the fastest-growing sport, and since we actually live at a beach, I think it would be great to see more interest in beach volleyball,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s the best sport, because you get to play at the beach all the time.”
And while her abilities on the court are unquestioned, for coaches such as Craig, it’s Ehlers’ abilities as a leader that make her an ideal pioneer for the growing volleyball movement.
“What I really admire about Raychel is that, as good as she is, you’d never know it from her attitude. There is no ego there,” Craig said. “She is a humble player and lets her actions speak for her. She’s a great role model for all players and deserved to qualify for High Performance.”