ORTVILLE — All eyes were front and center as 2008 Olympic gold medalist Lloy Ball spoke in front of an attentive audience inside the Mt. Vernon High School auxiliary gym.
Wrapping up a two-day summer volleyball camp for 40-plus high school players from Mt. Vernon and Franklin Central, Ball spent the last minutes of the event’s final session to reiterate several key points.
His words drew enthusiastic nods, a few smiles and profound focus.
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“Volleyball is an emotional and mentally driven game,” Ball emphasized to the exhausted and appreciative crowd huddled before him. “A lot of the competition drills we did yesterday and today will build you up for that to instill a killer instinct in all of you. … Find ways to win. Find ways to win together.”
No one left the camp otherwise.
Winners from the experience alone, having the unique opportunity to learn from Ball and fellow Team Pineapple Volleyball Club mentors, which consisted of three former collegiate All-Americans from IPFW’s storied men’s volleyball program, losing wasn’t an option.
“You don’t usually get people like them to come here and teach you,” said Mt. Vernon’s Jaclyn Bulmahn, an incoming junior outside hitter. “It was a great experience. The team got a lot out of it. We’re going to be a lot better for it.”
The campers picked the brains of their four special guests as intense individual and team drills were conducted to hone the mind, body and spirit.
Ball left no question unanswered, discussing his time as a setter for Team USA at Beijing in 2008 and allowing everyone to don his gold medal for a commemorative photo.
Jeff Ptak, a world-class attacker and professional men’s volleyball player in Puerto Rico, and Loren Gebert, the first IPFW Mastodon to be recognized by the American Volleyball Coaches Association under legendary coach Arnie Ball, offered their insight and expertise. IPFW’s Shaun Dryden, a national champion libero, provided pointers on defense and court position.
“It’s a lot about skill development. They’ve now seen different ways to approach the game. They teach both the mental and physical technique, so not only do the girls learn what they’re doing but why they’re doing it and when to apply it to a game,” Mt. Vernon volleyball coach Eric Bulmahn said. “I think it will make them all mentally tougher when they approach the game.
“When you hear it from someone of this caliber, there’s no doubt and no questioning. They will do exactly how he said. You get the complete buy-in.”
Lloy Ball and the other “Volleydons” were brought to Hancock County from the Fort Wayne area by Bulmahn through their long-time friendship and volleyball connection.
Coached by Don Shondell at Ball State University, Bulmahn was an all-conference player and later worked as a referee for NCAA Division I men’s and women’s volleyball.
Bulmahn, like most in the sport, came to befriend the recently retired Arnie Ball, who was also coached by Shondell before building a men’s volleyball powerhouse at IPFW from the ground up.
In 1981, Ball started the IPFW program and coached there for 35 years, amassing more than 550 career wins, six NCAA Final Four appearances, a national runner-up finish in 2007 and the fifth-most wins in NCAA history.
“I’ve known (Lloy) since we was 16. I refereed IPFW volleyball when I was a college referee,” Bulmahn said. “I grew up in Decatur, up by Fort Wayne, so I knew his dad. When (Lloy) was 18, we asked him to play on our open team, and we went to nationals. We kind of saw this guy grow up.”
When the two crossed paths during a dedication ceremony in Fort Wayne this past April to celebrate the unveiling of Arnie Ball Court at IPFW, Bulmahn planted the seed.
“He invited me to come up for that. The basketball court is now named after the volleyball coach up there. That is so cool. It’s a testimony to his dad,” Bulmahn said. “He and I were talking afterwards, and he said, ‘We’re all old roots here; if there is anything I can do to help you guys in Indy, just let me know.’ So I called him up about a month ago and asked him if he would come down and work our camp.”
Ball, 43, was happy to make the trip.
“When Eric asked us to come down — of course a longtime friend and I have a lot of respect for him and the things he’s done in the volleyball community — it was an honor for me to assemble really an unbelievable staff,” Ball said. “Coming down here to work with two amazing groups of student-athletes, we were all overly impressed with the effort, energy and the great positive attitudes both schools had.”
The addition of Franklin Central was a direct result of another volleyball connection through Bulmahn, which provided both teams the chance to scrimmage in a nontraditional format.
No points were tracked; only effort was recorded and praised. Cheers were encouraged in support of a kill, dig and ace. When a rally was killed or halted by a long hit or miscue, a new ball was tossed into play quickly by Ptak and the others with an alerting yell of “free ball.”
“We want them to get as many reps as possible. All the team-type drills you see, we try to make them as chaotic and fast-paced as possible. That way when they get into the game, the game seems slower and they’re more relaxed,” Ball said. “When we go 6-on-6, no matter how you want to score it, we’re competitive. We try to teach these kids, you’re here to win, and you have to find ways to get things done.
“My job here in this camp is to make it as difficult as possible, so you either have to figure out how to run through those roadblocks or get around craftily.”
The players passed with flying colors, garnering praise from all of the instructors. For the Mt. Vernon Marauders, they believe the time spent with greatness will come into play once the season begins early next month.
Mt. Vernon finished 24-9 last year and fell one step short of a sectional title but return a strong core with Jaclyn Bulmahn, senior Mary Grace Ertel and junior Ashton Barr.
As Lloy Ball expressed, anything is possible once teams and players master the mental game first and foremost.
“I hope they realized, now you’ve set the bar high. You don’t get to go underneath it anymore. You can only go up, so each time they come into the gym or in the classroom or wherever their passion is, to be great at it, you always have to raise the standard,” Ball said. “You always have to raise the bar, otherwise you’re going in the wrong direction.”