The craziest of years – and the call that changed everything
16th June 2017
It was a couple of years ago that the call came; a call which would change everything for Leeds VC. This was the sort of call which club chairmen up and down the country must dream of taking – but it brought with it expectations and a heavy responsibility which still drives the club volunteers on now.
The call came from a local teacher on behalf of Sir John Townsley, an educational reformer, hell-bent on driving up school standards across the city, particularly in its more disadvantaged areas. As the executive principal of the Gorse Academies Trust, Sir John was in the process of overseeing the move of one of the Trust’s eight schools, the Ruth Gorse Academy, into new state-of-the-art premises in the city centre.
He wanted this school to have volleyball at the heart of its extra-curricular activities – and with good reason. Ruth Gorse, after whom the Trust is named, was a much-loved local PE teacher who lost her struggle with cancer in 2007 at the tragically young age of 35. She was also a very a talented volleyballer, having represented Leeds in the National Volleyball League and represented England at junior level. It seemed only right that the school which would bear her name should also become a local centre for volleyball activity.
Ruth’s father, Keith Nicholls, currently Volleyball England’s acting President, was heavily involved with designing the sports facilities at the Academy. A £20,000 grant was given by the Ruth Nicholls Volleyball Foundation to ensure the hall was fully equipped for volleyball (and further support is being given to other academies within the group to get the sport played there as well), with Keith making regular trips up from Norfolk to ensure that everything was in place.
But the Academy also needed a club to partner with, to ensure that volleyball could be delivered on-site, and that’s why the call was made to Leeds VC.
Penny Speers, who coaches the Leeds ladies’ 1st team and who was a team-mate and friend of Ruth’s, recalls that everything changed after that point. She explained: “The club was set up in the early 1970s so it was a well-established organisation. But, as with many clubs, we were just keeping our head above water. When the call came, inviting us in to help deliver volleyball at the Academy and to begin establishing a junior playing structure, there was no way we could refuse.”
“Nor would we have wanted to say no. Ruth was a hugely popular figure; the Academy and the Trust is her legacy. As a club, we now have a responsibility to get this right. We must get it right and we must do it properly, for her sake.”
Leeds VC relocated their club activities into the new Academy facilities in September last year. At the same time, Penny, her husband Dave and what Penny describes as a skeleton crew of other volunteers got to work, delivering a programme of volleyball within the Academy. The sport is delivered as a single, large block within the PE curriculum, exposing all the students to the sport. This required the Leeds volunteers to train the teachers and to support them during lessons.
One volunteer – Elaine Brown – is often singled out for having had a particularly significant impact. Despite only joining Leeds this season, she has got involved to such an extent that she has now delivered volleyball to almost every student in the school.
After-school sessions are now laid on every Monday and Wednesday from 3pm. In fact, on Wednesdays the most enthusiastic students can play right through till 7pm with the after-school session being followed by a further session where students from the other Trust schools can come and join in, followed by Leeds’ own junior training session at 6pm.
“Getting the Trust’s other schools involved is something we’re really keen on”, continued Speers. “We’ve got long-term ambitions to develop junior teams which can compete locally, regionally and perhaps even nationally one day. This isn’t just about developing teams who can represent the Academy or our club, however. Working alongside like-minded neighbouring clubs like York and Hull, we want to investigate what we can do to get a Yorkshire team playing in competitions like the inter-regionals.”
From the perspective of any club official, Speers’ concerns for the immediate future have a familiar ring to them. The need for more volunteers, upskilling more coaches, finding competitive outlets for the juniors, creating a new women’s team to create more senior playing capacity; none of these are unusual challenges but they come with an extra level of scrutiny at Leeds because of the move into a purpose-made venue and the support (from Sport England, Volleyball England and others) which the club has received.
“It’s been a crazy year”, recalled Speers. “As well as all the junior activity, we set up a social session on Friday night, which regularly attracts at least 20 adults. We’ve had England squads training at the venue as well. Plus, on the very last day of the NVL season, our ladies’ 1st team secured promotion from Division 3 North – on set difference.”
“There’s still much more we can do though. The beauty of the situation we find ourselves in is that we can now plan for the future with much greater certainty than before. By working in partnership with the Academy, and investigating what else we can do with the Trust, we can continue to spread the word about volleyball – which is what Ruth would have wanted.”