“Volleyball on the inside”: Centre men compete against inmates at nearby correctional facility
This spring, for the second consecutive year, several Centre community members are engaging in an unusual activity: competing in volleyball matches at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Ky. The Centre team is one of the first to be in the LLCC volleyball “conference,” a group that has continued to grow due to Centre’s support.
The LLCC men’s volleyball program began a couple of years ago when one of the inmates, who had formerly played on the University of Kentucky’s men’s club volleyball team, organized a team at the correctional facility.
“Damon, the LLCC recreational coordinator, then started contacting all the nearby colleges to inquire about potential volleyball matches, and he sent an email to Matt Vonderbrink, Centre’s head tennis coach,” says assistant professor of biology Brian Storz, who organized the Centre team that competes at the correctional facility. “Matt knew that I played volleyball, so he forwarded the email to me. It took some convincing from Damon—after all, LLCC’s a prison—but I finally agreed to put a team together and play the inmates.”
Centre volleyball coach James Neyhouse, one of the five players on this year’s team, says that Storz’s “enthusiasm for the game reignited a passion in me to play again.”
Henok Tensae ’14 of Cambridge, Mass., shares this passion for the sport and was overjoyed to join the team. “I played four years of high school volleyball and fell in love with the sport,” he says. “I love the thrill and I love a good challenge. When I arrived at Centre, I was concerned about not being able to play volleyball anymore, so I was honored when I was asked to participate on this volleyball team. I felt that it was a great opportunity to me to become involved in something I love.”
In addition to Storz, Neyhouse and Tensae, Chris Risley ’12 and assistant professor of mathematics Jeff Heath make up the current Centre group.
The Centre team was the first to compete against the LLCC volleyball players. And after visiting LLCC for their first match last year, the Centre men were convinced that their decision to participate was the right one.
“The inmates are so appreciative of our coming in to play them,” Storz says. “They thank us over and over again for coming in, and when James Neyhouse showed up with a bunch of used volleyballs last time, the inmates were extremely moved.”
He adds that the “best part for us, and most likely the inmates, is the ability to let them feel ‘normal’ for a few hours—on the volleyball court we are all just athletes, competing and having a good time; no inmates and civilians, just athletes.”
Heath says that “the LLCC volleyball team has put in a lot of time and hard work, and they really enjoy the opportunity to compete against other teams. They have a difficult time bringing in outside teams to come in and play, so the players, coaches, referees and even the other prisoners watching the games were extremely grateful to us for coming in to play them.”
Having quickly become aware of the benefits of participating in the volleyball matches, Storz helped convince faculty, staff and students from other colleges to take part in the program. When teams from Xavier and Earlham began to participate, the “LLCC conference” was born.
Although there were few matches last year (the Centre team visited the prison three times in LLCC’s debut volleyball season), word of the volleyball program has continued to spread, and there are eight matches scheduled for this year.
And while they know the prisoners are exceptionally grateful for their participation, the Centre team members feel the program is just as rewarding for them.
“I had no idea that I would enjoy playing at LLCC so much,” says Brett Werner, Associated Colleges of the South post-doctoral fellow who played on the Centre team last year. “The games were competitive, our competitors were really glad to have people to play against, we had a pretty big audience that was mostly cheering for us—or against their buddies—all in good fun.”
“Everyone is able to put everything in their lives aside so that we can all get together to play an organized sport,” Tensae says. “By participating, I’ve learned that you can do anything and that it’s never too late to try something new. This experience taught me that with the right mentality, determination and the heart to excel, anything is possible.”
Neyhouse agrees. “Playing at the LLCC is extremely rewarding since you can really see how sports, and specifically a sport like volleyball that requires so much teamwork, can help a person. Some of the men at the LLCC have hit ‘rock bottom,’ and being able to play on a team and learn to work together for both common and individual goals can be life-changing for them. What more reward could a person ask for than to be a part of that?”