Bump, set, spike!

The expansive volleyball gym at Bethel University in St. Paul has four courts, track space around the perimeter for warming up and plenty of trolleys overflowing with gold and blue volleyballs — the perfect place to play volleyball and strengthen a relationship with God, according to Bethel volleyball camp counselor and former assistant coach Carissa Carroll.

“I think that it’s an opportunity to see how God can use the vehicle of volleyball and share through our faith — just the gift of our talents, the way our bodies can perform,” Carroll said.

A college experience

Every summer, Bethel welcomes about 250 campers to practice basic volleyball skills and learn non-denominational Christian teachings during day camps for grades 5–8, plus overnight camps for grades 8 and higher.

Head volleyball coach and camp director Gretchen Hunt and assistant volleyball coach Megan Kirchoff lead the camps for two weeks every summer, along with current Bethel volleyball players who gain leadership experience by coaching young athletes.

“I laugh because some of these girls are like, ‘That’s what I want to do when I’m done with college. I want to be a coach. I’m going to stay involved in volleyball.’ And it was never, ever a thought of mine,” Kirchoff said. “It was kind of an opportunity that popped up and here I am, 8 years later and still doing it.”

Karin Canakes, a junior at Bethel, said working with younger volleyball players can be rewarding.

“It’s a fun age to work with because at our level, you’re not seeing a drastic change,” Canakes said. “With these girls, you get to watch them become a better player. But you also get to watch them fall in love with the game.”

Hunt said Bethel’s athletics program attracts many high school students looking at prospective colleges.

“We have some campers here who really want to go to Bethel and they know that 20 of our current players are here and they’re going to train the way we train,” Hunt said, adding that campers might come from as far away as Colorado to see what it’s like to be on Bethel’s campus and among some of the players.

Bethel volleyball camps also attract campers who’ve never been to an overnight camp before and want to have a safe, fun camp experience, Hunt said.

“In general, we train really hard. We try to take care of them really well — with good food and doing fun things,” she said. “We really just want to give them access to our players and let them be with them and just soak up what it’s like to be a college volleyball player.”

Back to the basics

Volleyball camp allows girls to develop individual skills — serving, passing, setting and more — as well as teamwork.

“We actually go through the same teaching progression we do with our college players,” Hunt said, “just taking it down to the basics and building it back up.”

On the first day, campers are separated into groups based on experience and skill level.

Hunt said the camps usually get a wide variety of players, ranging from some who have played volleyball only in gym class and girls who have played competitively for years.

“We want them to have had some kind of experience with volleyball before, whether it was P.E. or parks and recreation or another camp because we go from 9 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon,” Hunt said. “If they have never done volleyball,mthat might be a really long time.”

During dedicated practice time at the camps, campers rotate within their groups through stations that focus on volleyball basics.

One popular aspect of the camps is the videotaping station in which players run through drills while being taped, then run over to analyze their form on screen.

Eleven-year-old Sophia said the station was one of her favorite parts of camp.

“You can visually see what you’re doing so you can correct it,” she said.

Eleven-year-old Maddie said she enjoyed the attentive teaching style.

“I like how the coaches are right there when something does go wrong so they can correct it straight away,” Maddie said. “They’ll bring everyone in a huddle.”

In the overnight camps for older girls, campers focus on player’s roles.

Older girls work on blocking and also break things down by position, Hunt said, adding: “If you’re a setter, our setters get four more hours of just setter training.”

Connecting to God

Campers also get time for Christian teachings.

“The faith piece is the most important for us in that if nothing else, these kids see a little bit of Christ in us and what that looks like — loving people, caring for people, caring for them more than just as athletes, but caring for them as human beings,” Kirchoff said.

Last summer’s theme was “authentic friendships,” which discussed what qualities to look for in a friend that will last a long time, including kindness, support, accountability and more.

Hunt said: “We look at David and three people who were important in his life and how they were authentic friends to him and then challenge each of them to think: ‘Who are these people in your life for you? Who could you do this for in your life?’”

As a Christian university, Bethel encourages students — including Bethel Volleyball athletes — to use values from the Bible as a way to guide their actions and contribute positively to those around them.

“It’s important to us, so it’s something we want to talk about,” Canakes said. “It’s not like ‘This is what you should believe.’”

Making new friends

Brooke Olstad, a junior at Bethel, said the camps are a great way to make friends.

“It’s those friendships where all that matters is you’re in the same class,” Olstad said. “The last night of the high school camp, there’s a talent show, which is really fun. Everyone comes out in their pajamas and we eat pizza and the girls just do ridiculous things.”

Some campers make friendships that they can come back to every summer.

“We have two campers here this year who are rooming together — one lives in Orono, one lives in Woodbury,” Hunt said. “They stay in touch through social media and through their phones when they’re not here. Then they come back every summer and room together.”

Overnight campers get the opportunity to build connections during the volleyball tournament held on the last day of the camp, yet another bonding experience.

Hunt said she hopes campers walk away from camp with confidence in their abilities, especially those who plan to try out.

She said: “We want them to go into their high school seasons feeling like they did everything they could to have their best shot and to make whatever team they want to make at their high school.”


Olivia Volkman-Johnson is a local freelance writer and a graduate of Winona State University.