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Club powers join hands Cheetah, Storm merge to better serve players

Sometimes, cooperation is better that competition.

At least, that's what the grassroots volleyball organizations in Western New York are counting on.

This year, the area's two top club programs, Cheetah Volleyball Club and WNY Storm, are merging to form one mega-club -- Niagara Frontier Volleyball Club.

The move has been in the making for more than a year. The two clubs have been talking about merging to better serve both the coaches and the players who look to the club system as a way to improve skills and get exposure to college coaches.

"We had some of the best kids split between both clubs," said Rocco Lucci, who was involved with Cheetah and will be the assistant director of Niagara Frontier along with coaching Niagara University's program. "If we combine and merge the talent pool, we'll be able to put together some stronger teams that have a better chance for success."

Here's how the superclub will work.

Players will be divided into three levels: national, regional and local. The national team will be comprised of elite players who have the time and money to invest in an extensive travel program, taking them to tournaments in California, Texas and other spots around the country.

Regional teams will travel but will stay in New York and surrounding states. The local, or house, league will play primarily at home, hosting tournaments and perhaps traveling as far as Rochester for a tournament.

So why the need to merge? Aside from combining resources and the ability to build a new facility sometime in the near future, it helps ease the insanity that goes along with any club sport system.

Players would jump from club to club, to either follow coaches or wait to see who would coach at which club and make their moves accordingly. It made planning a season nearly impossible for both sides.

It is hoped the merger will be able to smooth out the relationship between high school coaches and the club.

"There isn't always the best rapport between the high schools and the clubs," said Debby Schruefer, who was the club director for the WNY Storm and is the head coach for Frontier. "I wear two hats and I can certainly understand how some high school coaches felt the club season started too soon. During the high school season, we want kids focused on their high school team. But we do feel like we are serving the high school programs. The level of volleyball has grown by leaps and bounds. The modified and JV teams are where the varsity teams used to be. At the club level, we want to try and give as much playing opportunity and exposure as possible."

And exposure is the key element of the club season.

Clubs have become the way many, if not most, college coaches scout and recruit new talent in all sports. Since the high school and college seasons overlap, many college coaches can't get out to watch high school games, but they can travel during the club season. Hence, the club season becomes an important recruiting tool for scholarship-driven athletes.

The scholarship aspect, along with the drive to win national tournaments, has the potential to turn club volleyball from a grassroots organization into an elite gym. That possibility has some coaches taking a wait-and-see approach with the new Niagara Frontier program.

"I think it could be good if it's done right," said Starpoint coach Sue Rexford, who does not coach at the club level. "If you're a volleyball person who is just starting out, it's good to go have experience with the club. I just don't want to see it get so elite that people can't make the team. I'd like to see it as a place for all players to go who want to get better."

That's what, at least in theory, the three-tiered system is for. One doesn't need to make family life all about volleyball in order to play at the club level. Instead, you can opt for the house league and get experience and skill development without the painful sacrifice.

Another goal of the merger is to help bring more city kids into the sport.

"There's one team in the Buffalo Public Schools that sends kids to clubs every year and that's City Honors," Lucci said. "That's why they're the best in the city and undefeated every year. One of our goals at the local level is to try and get some of those inner city kids to play in the house league when they're younger. In the long run, that will impact the level of some of those other city teams."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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