Last May, two nights before leaving the broad, windswept mesas
of northeast Arizona for Southern California, 16-year-old
Wendolyn Begay and her parents went to see their medicine man.
This was not unusual. Like many traditional Navajo families, the
Begays visit their spiritual guide on various occasions: the
beginning of school, a change of season, even after a
particularly bad dream. With him they seek, through songs,
prayers and peyote--a sacred Navajo religious rite--guidance
from a higher source.
Wendolyn and her teammates on the Starlings Four Corners
Volleyball Club, the only regional volleyball traveling team in
the Navajo Nation, were about to go to San Diego to play in an
invitational tournament. For most of the girls, whose ages
ranged from 14 to 17, the trip would include their first plane
flight, their first sight of an ocean and, most important, a
chance to validate their surprising 31-4 debut season in Arizona
The Begays wanted a blessing from the medicine man, but when
they arrived at his hogan that night, he was nowhere to be
found. Undaunted, the next day Wendolyn held her own ceremony.
Before starting the five-hour journey to the Phoenix airport,
she grasped a pinch of corn pollen and, praying for safe
passage, released the powdery grains gently into the wind.
There are two gas stations, a market and a trading post in
Ganado, Ariz., a town of 2,572 not far from the New Mexico
border. The nearest movie theater and shopping mall are in
Gallup, N.Mex., 50 miles away. "Being in such a remote area,
there's not much more to do than watch sports," says Ivanna
Jones, the Four Corners' coach. So the Ganado High football team
plays its home games in front of 3,000 fans, and as many as
5,000 people cram into Navajo gyms for high school basketball
August 24, 1997
Although volleyball is considered secondary fare on the
reservation, more than 2,000 fans attend the annual showdown
between Monument Valley High School-Kayenta and Ganado High,
whose roster includes 11 of the 14 Four Corners players.
Volleyball crowds on the reservation tend to be larger than the
ones Navajo teams encounter on their regular visits to the state
tournament in Phoenix, where both Monument Valley ('93 and '95)
and Ganado ('94) have recently won Class 3A state championships.
Despite such success, until last spring no Navajo team had been
able to play in the off-season against top clubs from Phoenix
and Tucson. With monthly fees of up to $200 per person, regional
traveling clubs are the domain of the suburban moneyed classes,
and for players interested in college scholarships the
advantages such programs present are clear. "College coaches
don't go to high schools to recruit much anymore," says Rich
Foley, the Ganado High volleyball coach and Four Corners club
director. "They go to club tournaments--that's where the
Thanks to Starlings Volleyball Clubs, a nonprofit organization
founded two years ago by former U.S. national men's and women's
team members Byron Shewman and Kim Oden, teenage girls from nine
inner cities and the Navajo reservation now have a chance to
compete in regional club tournaments without having to pay the
high fee. Backed by corporate sponsors, Starlings is a
grassroots effort to popularize volleyball in areas where
funding and tradition are in short supply.
"One of our big focuses is not to be exclusionary, not to just
be looking at who lives in the 'right' area," says Oden, the '88
and '92 U.S. Olympic team captain. "There aren't many programs
in the inner cities or in rural areas, so let's go there. What
if there's a Flo Hyman or a Caren Kemner we're missing? We can't
While most sports programs for at-risk youth focus on boys,
Starlings is for girls. "Volleyball is called a girls' game,
often, unfortunately, in a pejorative way," says Shewman. "But
it's true. Girls drive this game--they outplay the guys almost
12 to 1 in high school and college--and that's not a bad thing."
Because 65 teams were competing in its age group, Four Corners
had low expectations for its first Arizona club season. "I knew
the teams in Phoenix and Tucson were good," team captain Luauna
Nez says, "so I thought we'd probably finish around 20th or
30th." Instead Four Corners won its first four tournaments with
merciless efficiency, building a 20-0 match record and allowing
no opponent more than nine points in a game. By the time the
season concluded in May, Four Corners was the sixth-best squad
in the state, and the Arizona volleyball community had taken
notice. The reservation club had won 31 of 35 matches, sending
legions of taller teams into submission.
"Navajos are physically smaller, so they have to make use of
their quickness and work harder on the court," says Foley, a
Smithtown, N.Y., native who has coached on the reservation since
1986. "I've been in a lot of different systems, and these kids
work harder than any I've ever seen. They really appreciate
something like this because they don't get as much when they're
growing up as the kids in higher-income areas do."
Success hasn't come without sacrifice. Although corporate
underwriting provides uniforms, sneakers and fees for the
players, some of whom can't afford phone service in their homes,
the team must drive 300 miles to the Phoenix area for every
tournament. Several players commute almost two hours each way
just to make the twice-a-week practices.
Then there is Jolena Bradley, who made a different sort of
sacrifice during one tournament in May, when she called her prom
date from a Phoenix gym on the day of the dance to say that she
wouldn't be making it after all. "The team needed me," says
Bradley, whose long black dress stayed in her closet. "I felt
bad about not going to the prom, but he knew how much volleyball
meant to me."
A few Four Corners players may wind up with college
scholarships, but the one with the best chance is Nez, a junior
and an unflappable passer whose quick reactions and range make
up for her 5'6" height. "With her size," says Shewman, "it's
just a question of whether it will be Division I or Division II."
Slowly, college coaches are beginning to notice Navajo
volleyball players. Three are currently in Division I programs:
Nana Allison and Paula Feathers at New Mexico, and Elvina Clark,
a walk-on at Arizona. Nez is interested in studying medicine at
a college in Colorado. "I like the reservation," she says, "but
I want to go away and have new challenges, meet different people."
She's well on her way to attaining that goal. This year she has
visited the California home of Olympian Karch Kiraly, who
invited her over for a promotional photo shoot for the national
Starlings programs, and she stayed with Oden during the
Starlings tournament in San Diego. There, although a sprained
ankle kept Nez out of the tournament, Four Corners won its first
three matches, two of them in trademark fashion: coming from
behind in the deciding third game. That recovery was reminiscent
of a match in May, when Four Corners was blanked 15-0 by the No.
2 seed, Zona, at the regional club tournament, only to win the
next two games and pull off the upset.
"The Navajos were just vacuums on the court, picking up
everything, never giving up," said Oden, whose Starlings San
Diego team was one of Four Corners' three-game victims.
"Their noise level is amazing," said another coach of the Four
Corners' celebrations between points. "I've been telling my
girls that the Navajos are 10 times louder."
Without Nez, however, Four Corners lacked a consistent passer,
and a powerful Los Angeles team exploited that disadvantage in a
two-game sweep. Four Corners finished tied for third in the
eight-team Starlings tournament.
There was consolation in the defeat, though. The following day
three of the teams gathered at South Mission Beach, where they
bobbed in the surf and played on the sand volleyball courts. As
she watched, Wendolyn Begay, whose steady play during the
tournament had pleased her coach, took stock of the weekend and
the entire year. "It feels good to play well together as
Navajos," she said as the waves rushed in behind her. "Not a lot
of people on the reservation get to have this feeling."