Ellen had already made volleyball such a big part of her life. She had attended camps and played club ball, well before that was common, getting as much experience as she could. In her junior year,
went to the state finals, losing to a powerhouse
team. She made enough of an impression to get the MVP in a losing effort. She had scholarship offers from Pittsburgh, Penn State, Rutgers, and Cincinnati. She chose Pitt to stay close to home, and to play for her club coaches, Mike Hebert and Ray Reilly.
Because of her familiarity with her coaches, and their knowledge of her game, Ellen got considerable court time as a freshman. Used mostly as a hitter, she was steady and effective. A nagging injury to starting setter Maria Perez saw Ellen using her skills as a setter, gaining valuable touches along the way.
Many of her club teammates also chose Pitt. Her High School teammate and friend Robin
, along with Julie Gaul from Washington, Pa and Shelly
from Penn Hills were her roommates.
Pitt's travel schedule was awesome that year as well. Trips to Hawaii, California, and Texas playing top ranked teams in lovely locations with girls she considered best friends. It was a great way to start what looked to be a wonderful college career! Things were clicking!
Back home in
, I continued working at the furniture store. I was very proud of Ellen, but I wanted to give her room to do the big things she loved doing. I spent as much time as I could with her, without getting in the way. I made many trips to matches close to home. I started to really love watching the game.
Not long after her freshman season word got around that Coach Hebert was leaving Pitt. This hit Ellen hard. Mike is one of the true "good guys" in college volleyball, and still to this day he only one who she refers to as "Coach", which for her is the ultimate compliment. Mike's wife was having a hard time dealing with the climate in Pittsburgh, so he was forced to move on.
Changing coaches is a nerve wracking time for anyone in athletics. Ellen's new coach would be Shelton Collier. Shelton was a fun person to be around, but he was far more intense than Mike, and Ellen and the Pitt team would have some adjustments to make. Often new coaches bring players with them, and Shelton did that as well. Ellen should have been aware of what was in store when her #5 was handed out to one of the new girls, and she was given #6 instead. She of course shrugged it off in her classic "Maggie" way.
Her sophomore year wasn't what she'd hoped for. She still contributed and was of course a good teammate, but everything she gained under Coach Mike was now forgotten. It was late in the season when a trainer who was taping her ankles noticed her toes. Ellen had a hereditary "hammer toe" condition. Her toes were starting to curl under. The orthopedic doctor explained a simple surgery could correct the problem.
He would make 5 small incisions, notching each tendon of her toes. The healing process would allow those tendons to stretch, and allow the toes to go back to their natural position. Pins would be placed in each foot to hold the toes in that natural position, until the healing took place. Sounds so simple, but not everything works out the way you want it to.
The process took longer than expected, and Ellen was forced to red shirt her Junior season. Sitting out was hard, and the team was moving on without her. When she was finally able to start her rehab, her feet hurt. Something wasn't right. Ellen and her parents drove all the way to Philadelphia to seek the advice of a prominent podiatrist. The news wasn't good. She would need more surgery to correct what had gone wrong. This news effectively ended Ellen's college career.
From the outside, you might say Ellen's college experience at Pitt was disappointing. What you might not see are the lifetime friendships, and lessons, albeit hard lessons learned. After her junior year, Coach Shelton ask Ellen to renounce her scholarship. As unfair as that seems, Ellen did it. Doors close and doors open.
This one was shut in her face.
But one soon opened. In the spring of her senior year of college, Ellen got the chance to coach for the first time. While
was embroiled in a
teachers strike, Ellen took the helm as legendary Coach Sharon Watson's replacement. Ellen coached the team all the way to the
semi-finals. After winning that match, Ellen learned that the strike was over, and Coach Watson would return in time to win another
Championship and eventually a
state championship. By that time, most everyone had forgotten her contribution to that playoff run, but one person remembered.
One of the teams Ellen helped
dispatch in the run to that championship was Plum, coached by another Western Pennsylvania legend, Mike
. Ellen was scheduled to do her student teaching at Plum, just in time to join Mike's boy's teams, as the Plum JV coach. Here was a chance to coach boys, in a very well respected program. Ellen jumped at the chance!
After a fun season coaching the JV boys(I even got to coach a match at York... Winner!) Ellen was ask if she'd be interested in taking the girls team in the fall. It was an easy decision. We had become familiar with the girls, even helping Coach
during the State Championships, and there was a good group returning.
It was also an opportunity to get the old "foot in the door" at Plum, hoping to land a Phys. Ed job down the road. It was official, Ellen would coach the Lady Mustangs in the fall.