Having graduated six seniors, the Ball State women’s volleyball team started the 2016 season last fall flush with underclassmen and opportunity.
No one exemplified that like freshman Kate Avila, who during the team’s first tournament took over at the defense-oriented libero spot — arguably, the toughest in the sport — and all but owned it for the rest of the season.
“The second she got into that position, she wouldn’t let it go,” said coach Kelli Miller, MA ’12. “There was no hesitation in my mind from then on out because she was so good.”
How good? Here’s a glimpse into her skill: Avila recorded more than 500 digs (the two-handed saves players make involving balls traveling across the net at speeds up to 55 mph) and was named to the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Volleyball All-Freshman Team.
But behind statistics and honors is an athlete whose volleyball story is a matter of Ball State and family history. Avila took volleyball lessons at age 10 from the same Hall of Fame coach who more than three decades earlier taught her father when he was on the university men’s team. Ramon Avila, ’77 MBA ’79, now a Ball State marketing professor, regularly cheered his daughter on from the stands with other family members, several of whom have also played the sport.
“There is such a rich volleyball tradition in Delaware County, and I came up through the ranks right in the middle of it,” said Kate Avila. “Nothing could have prepared me better for becoming a Cardinal.”
The libero (pronounced LEE-buh-ro or lih-BEAR-oh) is a relatively new position in NCAA women’s volleyball, having been around since 2002. Meaning “free” in Italian, it refers to a defensive specialist who patrols the backcourt, not unlike a goalkeeper guarding the net in soccer. The player is focused on passing and preventing the ball from hitting the ground.
From Yorktown to the big time
The job on the Ball State women’s team was up for grabs after senior standout Kati Vasalakis graduated last year. One of six defensive specialists on the team, Avila was the second player of the season to take on this critical role. It was one of four positions she played during her time at Yorktown High School, less than 10 miles away from Worthen Arena.
But this was different.
“Coming in, coach Miller told us ‘There are no upperclassmen, underclassmen,’ ” said Avila. “It’s whoever is best is going to be on the court. That’s what had all of us working. Every single practice, you had the potential to earn a spot but also to lose a spot.”
Miller told her players to be prepared to play whatever position was needed at that time, an instruction that suited Avila, who played a different spot each year in high school. So, in the middle of the first tournament in Fort Wayne during the Aug. 27 Murray State match, Miller decided to switch the 5-foot-6-inch Avila from another defensive position to the libero.
Avila made the formal change into a different-colored jersey that comes with the job and headed back onto the court.
Opponents’ high-speed serves and attacks that come Avila’s way require her to dive in any number of directions. She says she’s naturally clumsy, so the ability to dive, fall and roll is a talent she’s put to good use.
Her coach is no stranger to the backcourt, having played libero at Purdue, and as a result pushes players like Avila hard.
“She uses that as fuel to her fire,” said Miller. “She always wants to know what she can do better. ‘How can I get more digs? How can I pass better?’ ”
The nature of the position means Avila was on the court at nearly all times during the season — playing every match and set. This resulted in impressive stats for a freshman, including 528 digs. That’s just three behind Vasalakis during her senior season at the position.
Avila’s ties to Ball State and its volleyball programs run deep.
Her father joined the Ball State men’s volleyball team in 1973, when he learned the game from legendary coach Don Shondell, ’52 MA ’56, and played alongside Don’s son Steve, ’77, MA ’80, who himself retired last year after six seasons as the coach of Ball State’s women’s team.
‘Taught by a legend’
In a twist, Avila also had the chance to learn from the elder Shondell, a member of the International Volleyball and American Volleyball Coaches Association halls of fame. Turns out he was volunteering for Delaware County’s Munciana, a nationally elite junior club, when Avila joined.
“Who gets to be taught by a legend? Here’s Don Shondell in all of these halls of fames, and he’s teaching Kate Avila how to play volleyball … and she’s 10 years old,” said Ramon Avila, the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Marketing.
In another twist, the younger Shondell, who became a lifelong friend of Ramon Avila’s, was the women’s head coach when Kate Avila began turning heads as a high school player. In 2015, he sent Miller, then an assistant head coach, to scout Avila at Yorktown.
Like Avila, Miller played Munciana club volleyball, and so she had an appreciation for how Avila’s competitive drive and how she had been coached. Miller also saw that Avila had a clear understanding of what her role was on the team and that she wasn’t easily frustrated.
“Nothing really fazed her. She was always locked in,” said Miller.
Avila also learned from her father, who taught her the basics and instilled in her a passion for the game.
“I just love it,” said Ramon Avila, who began teaching at Ball State in 1984. “My father was a teacher. Don Shondell was a teacher. I’m a teacher. I love teaching, whether it’s marketing or teaching somebody about volleyball.”
And, he gave her confidence.
“He believes in me 100 percent. He doesn’t doubt me for a second, even if I have a bad match.”
That said, Kate Avila didn’t feel pressure to come to Ball State or be a student-athlete. Even though three of her siblings and several of her relatives are alumni, it was her choice to follow in her father’s footsteps by playing collegiate volleyball.
Getting to play in Worthen Arena was an honor unto itself. She attended volleyball games there as a child and capped her high school career there during a state title match her senior year. Her Tigers lost, but she knew her Ball State career was just around the corner.
“I feel like when I was on the court playing, something was right. Something clicked. I knew that just a couple months later, I would be a Cardinal.”
At the beginning of her first college season, not everything came easy. Taking on the libero position alone required a mental toughness unfamiliar to most freshmen. Furthermore, the first nine games didn’t go the Cardinals’ way.
“Volleyball is a big game of having chemistry and connection with your teammates,” said Miller. “And the more they played together, the more close they became.”
The early losses were difficult, but Avila’s family and community backing was a shining light.
“When you have supportive parents, it is just phenomenal the difference that makes for your program,” said Miller. “Kate’s family is top-notch.”
Kate’s father said it’s a tradition in their family to support one another at athletic events.
“It started with our parents, who would go to all our matches. We all live close by and support each other at games,” said Ramon Avila. “We’re a family that enjoys being around each other, and you go to support your family. It doesn’t mean we’re able to make them all, but we’re going to make a lot of them. It’s just become part of who we are.”
Kate Avila was encouraged to have many family members consistently in the stands, and the season turned around. Her consistency and determination in the libero position helped the team finish the season with a 9-7 conference record.
“To be able to play was humbling and surprising,” said Avila. “And it was reassuring that I was meant to come to Ball State, and there was a reason for it all.”
From practice floor to study table
Being a student-athlete requires twice the commitment. Avila is learning to balance both of her “jobs”: volleyball and academics. The speech pathology major has been eager to dive into her introductory courses. When not in practice, she’s often hard at work at the study tables in North Quad.
Less than two weeks after the season finished, she was back in the gym, lifting weights and working out — with her eyes set on next season.
“I feel like, in a sense, it’s never-ending. If you want to get better and have a successful season, you want to put in the work. I think that’s what it takes.”
Her proud father, who helped instill this type of work ethic, is happy to pass the family volleyball legacy on to another generation.
“I just never really dreamt when I played that one of my children would play … that was thrilling,” said Ramon Avila.