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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (June 12, 2009) – Haley Eckerman (Waterloo, Iowa) has done something that no other Iowa native has ever done.
Eckerman, one of the nation’s most promising young volleyball players, was recently named to the 12-member U.S. Girls’ Youth National Team that will make the trip to Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, to compete in the FIVB Girls’ Youth World Championship. A quick scan of the roster will tell you that she is the only Iowan on the list, making her the first from the Hawkeye state to ever play for the U.S. Girls’ Youth National Team.
“To be the first from Iowa to do something like this is a big honor,” said Eckerman, who will be a junior at Waterloo East High School. “I get to represent my state and my country.”
U.S. Girls’ Youth Head Coach Jim Stone will coach Eckerman and the other 11 members in the event held July 3-12 in Thailand. Team USA opens the tournament on July 3 versus Mexico.
Eckerman’s volleyball career began early, thanks to her mother, Julia Eckerman. As a fourth-grader, Haley walked to the gym where her mother coached junior high volleyball after school. Haley intently watched the older girls practice, studying their passing and hitting techniques, and learning the game.
After her players left, the elder Eckerman stayed and worked with her daughter on drills and fundamentals. It was during these sessions that Haley developed the skills that would lead her to become far more advanced than her peers. By sixth grade, Julia knew that Haley was something special.
“When she started playing junior high ball, we knew that she was pretty advanced compared to the other junior high girls in our area,” Julia Eckerman said. “She was always naturally coordinated. She never went through a clumsy stage that many tall, lanky girls have.”
Haley joined the Cedar Valley Sparks Volleyball Club when she was 11. By the time she was 14, she was playing with the 18-year-old squad, something that her mother credits for much of her skill and motivation.
“(Playing on the 18s) really helped her stay focused and understand how good of an athlete she was,” her mother said. “We would go to tournaments and other teams would be like ‘They have a 14 year old on their team? No way!’”
The exposure to volleyball at an early age also made it easy for Haley to resist several recruiting calls to play basketball.
“She wanted to play (volleyball) all the time,” Julia Eckerman said. “When she got to high school she was like, ‘I don’t even have the desire to play other sports. I want to completely focus on volleyball, that’s my love.’ Even though everyone was telling her, ‘Oh you’re tall, you should be a basketball player.’ She was being recruited to play basketball in high school and we were like, ‘No, she’s a volleyball player.’”
Haley’s focus and determination paid off. In 2006 she attended the USA Volleyball Development A2 Camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. In 2007 Eckerman helped her Iowa Region High Performance Youth Team to a third place finish at the USA Volleyball High Performance Championships. In 2008, she led Iowa Elite Club to the bronze medal at the Northern Lights Qualifier in the 16-1 Club division.
In 2007 and 2008, she led Waterloo East High School to back-to-back Mississippi Valley Conference Championships, making girls’ volleyball her school’s first girls’ athletic program to win an MVC Championship.
Eckerman has racked up numerous individual honors along the way. She made back-to-back appearances on the Iowa Elite 8 Team, is a two-time PrepVolleyball.com National Runner-up Player of the Year, was awarded the 2007 MVC Athlete of the Year and earned 2008 PrepVolleyball.com All-American.
Eckerman’s impressive credentials earned her a spot on the 2009 U.S. Girls’ Youth National Training Team and eventually the U.S. Girls’ Youth National Team, a goal that she had worked toward for more than two years.
“When he (Stone) finally called my name it was a sigh of relief,” Eckerman said. “I finally accomplished what I’d been trying to accomplish these last two years. I finally did it.”
Stone feels that Eckerman possesses the natural talent that will allow her to contribute to the team.
“I think her talent level allows her to play at a high level and I think she’ll be successful,” Stone said. “ I just think her biggest challenge is to be a sponge, and soak in her experiences and every day get a little bit better.”
Eckerman attributes much of her success to her mother, whom she names as her most admired person.
“She does so much for me with volleyball and traveling,” Haley said of her mother. “She always makes sure everything is done. If I can’t get into a gym with a coach, she will hit balls with me and helps me with my technique if I’m struggling. I’m really glad she’s here.”
Mrs. Eckerman is just happy to share her love of sport with her daughter and go along for the ride.
“This is just something that we’ve both dreamed of for her, so it’s just really cool that she’s getting to experience that piece of it,” Julia said. “Just to be around it and to be a part of it is really neat for her and for me.”
Haley is also using her accomplishments and high profile to give back to her community. She was named the Human Rights Youth of the Year by the Cedar Valley Human Rights Commission for her help in organizing the 2008 Cedar Valley Conference on Race. She also volunteers as an elementary school mentor and teaches volleyball to middle school gym classes.
“I really love doing it,” Haley said. “It’s really cool to see kids look up to me and want to play a sport or just get involved in something.”
Haley also hopes to forge a successful career in sand volleyball. She has played for two years in local leagues with partner Maya Williamson, and hopes to use her success on the U.S. Girls’ Youth National Team to propel her onto the sand volleyball scene.
“Hopefully by my senior year in high school, sand volleyball should be a collegiate sport,” Eckerman said, referring to the NCAA announcement that sand volleyball would be an approved NCAA Division I varsity women’s sport by 2010-11.
“When I enter college, I plan to transition completely into sand volleyball and make it my main sport,” said Eckerman, who has yet to commit to a college.
Eckerman credits her sand volleyball experience with helping her excel indoors.
“It helps me read the court better,” Eckerman said. “In sand volleyball, it’s only you and one other person, so you have to be more aware on the court, which helps me when I’m playing indoor.”
For this history-making Iowan in a landlocked state, Eckerman is using her indoor talents in the present to reach her future goals as a impact sand and beach volleyball player.