Kenwood Academy senior Naturi Parker returns a ball during the 360 Sports volleyball event at the CSO Sports Multiplex on 47th Street on Saturday, June 5.

The shouts of young women mixed with the thwacks of hands hitting volleyballs filled the air of the CSO Sports Multiplex on 47th Street this past Saturday afternoon, June 5.

It was the second day of the weekend-long “HB See You Girls Volleyball Combine and Exposure Camp,” organized by 360 Sports Academy to give young women an opportunity to work with college-level coaches.

“Today we are putting on a college recruiting combine for a lot of the local girls here in Chicago,” said Coach Bernie Headley, director and founder of 360 Sports, “introducing them or reintroducing them to Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as some other local Illinois schools.”

“We had 82 girls register for the combine. Approximately 80 of them actually showed up,” Headley added.

Many of the seniors at the event haven’t yet committed to colleges for the fall, in part because they haven’t yet been able to get the exposure they would normally have had by this time of year due to the cancelling of tournaments, camps or showcases in response to the COVID pandemic.

At this combine — which usually involves the student athletes running through specific drills that assess their speed, strength and overall skill — 360 Sports also brought in coaching staffs from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), including Central State University (Wilberforce, Ohio), Alabama A&M (Huntsville, Alabama), Alabama State (Birmingham, Alabama) and Jackson State (Jackson, Mississippi), as well as local schools Northern Illinois and Olive-Harvey, to work with the student-athletes.

Among the student-athletes participating in the combine were 11 Kenwood Academy and Hyde Park Academy students, including Kenwood seniors Naturi Parker and Ja’Nya Wilkes. Naturi and Ja’Nya spoke about their experiences being student-athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic, what they were expecting from the combine, and their hopes for the future.

“The past year has been a little shaky as of the COVID situation and how we had to stay in the house, because I like to travel and get out of the house a lot,” said Ja’Nya.

Naturi concurred saying, “The past year has been awkward, mostly because we weren’t able to travel as much and our club season was cut short at the beginning of last year and at the beginning of this year as well.”

“My hope for this camp is to build relations with coaches so if I don’t get a scholarship now, maybe transfer or just get better in volleyball,” said Ja’Nya, who plans on majoring in business in college. 

“I plan to attend college on a full-ride academic and/or athletic scholarship,” said Naturi, who plans to pursue a career in psychology with a focus in teen development. 

And then Naturi added, “I hope to build friendships between girls I have never met before and a connection between coaches, just in case I don’t go to a D1 (Division 1) college.” 

Alabama A&M head coach Rose Powell, who was on the U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball team during the 1984 Games in Los Angeles Olympics, explained what she and other coaches were looking for in a student-athlete. 

“We want a kid that has great character,” said Coach Powell, whose 1984 team was the first U.S. women’s volleyball team to earn an Olympic medal. “We get a chance now to come and look at them, see how they respond to us … to see if they’re coachable,” she continued.

“You know, we can’t take them all, but we can pick two or three,” added Powell. “And there’s a lot of colleges out there; there’s a lot of different levels of play.” 

360 Sports Academy is starting its tenth year of working with young women living in Chicago’s urban areas who want to play volleyball.

Headley started 360 Sport after hiring a private coach to meet his daughter’s needs as a young African-American volleyball player in the city, which he felt were not being met on- and off-the-court by her team.

“The downside with a lot of our public schools here in Chicago, public schools in particular, (is that) the girls don’t get the training they need for D1.” 

“So, what we want, we try to do at 360, is provide an opportunity to get training, maybe not be D1 training, but put them in a position to at least say, ‘Can I go to college?’ ”

Headley then told a story about one of his former players.

“We had a player who went to Roosevelt University, played four years, came back, and is now one of our, part of our staff.”

“And her struggle was no different than many of the girls here. Hard situation at home, probably didn’t get a shot somewhere else. 

“To see her thrive, get a position to play in college, wasn’t a tall girl, to play in college. Now she comes back — more than four years ago that she graduated from college — to give back her talents is great.”

As I was finishing my interviews, I asked Naturi Parker what she was going to do after attending the combine.

Naturi answered, “Today I hope to go home, soak off a little bit, make sure my body is right for tomorrow and play a better game.”

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