Volleyball attracting more Blacks

This column continues the Only One series in which this reporter shares his experiences as the only African American on the scene. 

A rare sight indeed — more than a couple of female Black players playing big-time volleyball at the U of M Sports Pavilion. Texas (four) and North Carolina (five), who played Dec. 13 in the NCAA Minneapolis Regionals finals, combined for nearly 10 Black players.

“A lot of African American girls are starting to play volleyball,” notes Texas Associate Head Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Tonya Johnson. “Our kids get to show off their true athleticism in terms of how high they can jump, their speed and their quickness.”

Chaniel Nelson Photos by Charles Hallman
Chaniel Nelson
Photos by Charles Hallman
Tonya Johnson
Tonya Johnson


Three such players — North Carolina opposite hitter Chaniel Nelson and Texas middle blockers Khat Bell and Chiaka Ogbogu — were among the seven-player All-Region Team selected by the media, including the MSR’s Only One.

“Bell is a main focal point of our offense,” said Texas Head Coach Jerritt Elliott after his team’s 3-1 win to advance to this year’s final quartet December 18-20 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The 6’-2” senior played basketball and wasn’t interested in volleyball until her high school coach persuaded her to try it. “I’m proud of how she’s grown,” added Elliott.

The 6’-2” sophomore Ogbogu leads the team and the conference in hitting percentage and provides the emotional lift for the Longhorns (27-2), said Elliott. Her middle school coaches “forced her to start playing [volleyball] even though she didn’t want to.”

“A lot of [Black] kids are turning away from basketball and turning to volleyball,” continued Johnson. “I played in high school and played collegiately at LSU [1987-90] and was part of a Final Four team [in 1990] there.

“I think that’s great for our sport, because now you are seeing a bunch of athletic kids on the other side of the net,” Johnson said. “I think that’s fun, and it’s great for our sport.”

Nelson, a 6’-2” redshirt senior, led North Carolina, who finished 29-3 in kills this season. She is one of 10 finalists for the Senior CLASS Award, a first-team Atlantic Coast Conference, a two-time ACC Player of the Week, and was named to the AVCA Division I East Coast All-Region team.

She is “one of the go-to people” and a key leader on the Tar Heels, Head Coach Joe Sagula told the Only One, adding that diversity is a high priority in his recruiting, especially within North Carolina.

Texas and North Carolina each also had a Black coach — Longhorns’ Johnson and Tar Heels Volunteer Assistant Coach Jennifer Charles.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Johnson, who began her collegiate coaching career as an assistant at Kentucky in 1995. She returned to Texas this season after five seasons as Georgia Tech head coach — she previously spent six seasons at the school and was the top assistant at LSU from 1998-2003.

“To be able to have an influence on young ladies and be a positive influence on their lives and help on and off the court is all I ever wanted to do. It’s a special job,” concluded Johnson.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.