International talent brings diversity to volleyball
The Southland men's and women's volleyball teams will take to the courts at the Volleyball New Zealand Club Champs starting today.
The teams are not red hot favourites to return from Tauranga with a title.
It is the first time Southland has been represented at the nationals and the fact the two teams will be fighting it out against teams from across the country in Division II is a measure of how far volleyball has come in the south.
Two years ago Volleyball Southland was broke and battling to dig itself out of a hole.
Volleyball Southland regional development manager Donna Milne said the sport was struggling to field enough teams for a competition.
''In 2012 there were about 400 players on the books and the organisation was near bankrupt,'' she said.
Fast forward and Volleyball Southland is enjoying a spike in numbers.
In large part due to Milne's tireless efforts, Volleyball Southland is served up some impressive figures after putting a concerted effort into increasing participation numbers across Southland and out of Queenstown.
''There are now more than 1400 affiliated members,'' Milne said.
When Milne took up her role as regional development manager in 2012, it was her job to develop a player base, and find coaches.
''I had to start finding people who could play the sport in Southland,'' she said.
A premier competition was set up by the organisation in the hope of luring top players.
''We got huge interest from Queenstown, Gore and Winton so we ran the competition on a trial basis last year.''
The interest also came from the region's international residents.
Brazilian, Russian, Argentine, American, Dutch and Fijian ex-pats were drawn to the sport popular in their homelands.
Queenstown-based Brazilian coach Alexandro Mariano was brought on board as the head coach for the men's and women's sides.
''Alex travelled down from Queenstown and brought a lot of his players with him. A couple of players also travelled down from Dunedin to play and train once a week,'' Milne said.
Volleyball Southland began tapping into the foreign talent that had been living and working in the region and enticed them back into the game, she said.
''We got them back into their sport along with natural home grown talent.''
The region's first run at the national event is testament to the turn around at Volleyball Southland and the hard work to get the sport back on the map.
''I really thought getting two teams away [to the national club championships] was like reaching for the moon. But I like taking on challenges and risks so to get two teams onto the court in Tauranga is just unbelievable,'' Milne said.
The world class facilities now available to Volleyball Southland at the ILT Stadium Southland has also helped the sport grow.
''Before the stadium, we were operating out of different school gyms. Now we bring everyone under one roof to play at different levels using fantastic facilities,'' she said.
Volleyball Southland is also targeting the next generation of players and is working with 31 schools in Southland.
For now, the men's team will be led out on court by former Brazilian professional volleyballer Juliano Baby Amorim while former Russian professional Anastasia Shtampf will captain the women's team.
With a healthy helping of international flavour, a sprinkling of kiwi talent and several rising Southland youth stars, the Southland teams could just spring a surprise or two.
- The Southland Times