Volleyball a family affair for Illinois prodigy


Carly Thomas didn't have much of a summer vacation.

The Althoff (Belleville, Ill.) senior is a lesson in perpetual motion, and her hectic volleyball schedule keeps her busy 24/7/365. But that's fine with Thomas.

"I like it that way," she says. "I get bored very quickly if I'm not playing."

So it's a good thing Thomas is one of the best players in the country, because it seems like everyone wants a piece of her time. In addition to leading Althoff in the fall, she also plays for an elite club team, Southwest Illinois Volleyball, during the winter and spring.

And instead of hitting the beach this summer, Thomas found a better use of her time -- playing for the USA Volleyball Youth National Team.

Competing at such a high level year-round may seem like a taxing experience, but Thomas is used to it. The breakneck pace started early, as Thomas was born into a volleyball family and raised to play the game.

Her mother played and coached at the college level, and each of Thomas' three older sisters were involved with youth teams. Her aunt, Kathy Wuller, played at Missouri State and coached the Althoff girls' team for Thomas' first three years.

As early as age 5, Thomas remembers batting a balloon around the backyard with her sisters, learning the skills that would help her become a star.

"I've always loved it, ever since I was little," says Thomas. "Volleyball has always been my favorite thing to do."

Thomas' mom was intent on training her to be a setter, ostensibly to round out the family's starting lineup. Carly ran with the idea, constantly looking for someone to play with.

"Carly was always the one to go out in the driveway and pass the ball against the garage door," says Wuller. "It didn't matter if she had a partner or not, she always had a ball in her hands."

When Thomas turned 8, she joined the Southwest Illinois club team, playing up with the 10-year-olds (the youngest age group at the time). Her mother was the coach, and every practice ended with Thomas doing extra setting drills. It might've seemed like work to some, but she couldn't get enough of it.

"It's like playing pepper with your sisters in the yard," says Thomas. "Getting the extra reps really helped me develop a rhythm for passing and setting."

The coaching she received from her mother and aunt proved invaluable. Thomas not only mastered the setter position, she also developed the skills to make an impact all over the court.

As she grew into her 5-foot-11 frame, Thomas found herself being moved around to take advantage of her athleticism. As a freshman, Wuller sometimes used her as an outside hitter for the high school team. And Thomas played her entire sophomore season as a hitter, compiling 257 kills and leading the team to the Illinois Class 3A state semifinals.

The summer before her junior year, Thomas decided she wanted even more volleyball on her plate, so she went out for the Youth National Team. Despite battling her nerves during the tryouts, she survived the first cut down to 18 pool players before making the final 12-person travel team.

At the NORCECA Youth Continental Championships in Puerto Rico, Thomas put on a show, averaging a tournament-best 2.9 assists per game and helping the U.S. team to a gold-medal finish. She was named the tourney's best setter.

"That was my proudest moment so far," says Thomas. "Being on a team with all those great players, it was an amazing experience for all of us. It was an honor for me."

Unfortunately for Thomas, her nonstop pace started to catch up with her last year. She helped Althoff win its first 16 matches before serious shin splints began to hamper her play.

In October, a stress fracture in her left leg threatened to knock her out of the lineup, but Thomas fought to stay on the court.

"That's just the way Carly is," says Wuller. "She never wants to stop playing, not for any reason. Even when the doctors were telling her to take some time off, she was determined to stay out there. And she played well."

Thomas was on crutches for six weeks, and she was not allowed to practice with the team. But the arrangement permitted her to play in games, which was most important to Thomas.

"It was so frustrating," says Thomas. "[The doctors] didn't want to let me do anything, but it's so hard to sit through a practice and watch your teammates when I know I should be out there helping them.

"As soon as I got my medical release, I went right back at it."

Thomas ended up with 356 assists and 242 kills despite the injury. And after the Crusaders' campaign ended in the IHSA sectionals, she took a whole two weeks off to rest before suiting up for her club team.

The club season stretched into the summer, though Thomas left in mid-June to join the Youth National Team again. After an international tournament in Thailand, she returned on July 12 and took another two weeks off before beginning conditioning workouts for the high school season.

She also made time to attend several summer camps at Missouri State, where she will play in college (like her mother, aunt and one sister before her).

And if it's up to Thomas, she won't be slowing down any time soon.

"I want to play for as long as I can," she says. "After college, I'm definitely going to try out for the Olympics."

That ought to keep her busy.

Mike Grimala covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.