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Talent on the Rise

Dec 13, 2023
Written By: Mark Newman

Cathy George, head coach of Grand Rapids’ major-league women’s sports team, is excited about the quality of play that will be on display when the Pro Volleyball Federation franchise springs into action in January. 

Photo courtesy Michigan State University

Cathy George is positive about the future of women's professional volleyball and is convinced that she knows how to win others to her side.

Just watch.

She speaks with authority – not to mention considerable passion and purpose. After 37 years of coaching volleyball, including 17 years at Michigan State University and 11 at Western Michigan University, she is determined to do whatever she can to be a champion of Pro Volleyball Federation, both literally and figuratively.

As head coach of the Grand Rapids Rise, George is excited for people to see the sport for themselves.

"We would love for people to check us out," she said. "We have seen the growth of women's volleyball across the country in the last decade and we know it's a sport that's contagious. We want people to come and be a part of this inaugural season that sends this whole thing in motion. As a fan, you can say you helped get us started. You were there that first year."

George has been a witness to what watching the sport can do.

"I guarantee you every time I've had somebody as a guest to a match, they ended up buying courtside seats the following year," she said. "They were amazed at the athleticism, passion and energy and wanted to be a part of it. And I think if people come, they're going to want to come again.

"The matches are family-friendly and affordable. They’re for everyone. And as a sport, we can reach out in communities because our players are accessible. They enjoy interacting and making a difference while being role models for your daughters and granddaughters. I think this is such an amazing opportunity to present the sport at the highest level."

George, who left Michigan State two years ago to care for her mother during her final days, jumped at the chance to coach in the new league, which begins its inaugural season in January 2024. The Rise will open their 24-match season by hosting the Columbus Fury on Jan. 25 at Van Andel Arena.

She believes people will be impressed by the level of play in Pro Volleyball Federation, which also includes teams in Atlanta, Columbus, Las Vegas, Omaha, Orlando and San Diego. Meanwhile, Dallas and Kansas City have begun operations in preparation for the 2025 season.

"I think people will find the speed, the athleticism, and the excitement of the rallies, with points scored on every opportunity, just amazing," she said. "The competitive level is really far beyond anything anybody has seen in this area, for sure."

George has reason to be optimistic about the potential market for pro volleyball.

"One of the reasons the league started was because of the wild growth of the sport on the Big Ten Network. Women's volleyball was the number-three sport watched on TV behind football and basketball. The demographics are very exciting and drew the attention of many."

And the evidence is not anecdotal either. Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, was filled with 92,003 fans last August when the five-time NCAA champion Nebraska volleyball team set a record for the largest crowd to witness a women's sports event. MSU regularly ranked near the top of Big Ten attendance.

"These things aren't accidents," George said. "We're breaking attendance records almost every week in volleyball nationally, and the owners, sponsors and players are all paying attention. The momentum for volleyball is really off the charts."

George said the league is already attracting some of the best talent in the world.

"We're seeing an influx of high-level players," she said. "Most of them have been All-Americans out of their colleges and almost all have been playing professionally or playing on their national or Olympic teams. Many have been playing overseas, and now this is an opportunity to play closer to home."

The Rise's roster includes three Michigan natives: outside hitter Symone Abbott, who starred at Northwestern, is from Northville; middle blocker Alyssa Garvelink-Jensen, a two-time Second-Team All-American at MSU, is from Holland; and outside hitter Holly Toliver, who was an All-American Honorable Mention at MSU, is from Berrien Springs.

Other players hail from Arizona, California, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio and Wisconsin. The roster also includes two international players. Camila Gomez, a libero who played collegiately at Texas A&M, has been a member of Team Colombia. Opposite hitter Emiliya Dimitrova, who has 14 years of professional experience in Europe and Asia, is a member of the Bulgaria women's national volleyball team. The latter's husband is a member of George's coaching staff.

Assistant coach Denislav Dimitrov played seven seasons as a professional in Europe from 2011-18 in Bulgaria, France and Turkey, in addition to coaching in Francis, Romania and Turkey as well as his native Bulgaria. "Denis has been coaching in Europe for several years after playing professionally, and I wanted someone with his technical background who understood professional volleyball and could be a great teacher," she said.

Her associate head coach is Bill Walton – not the NBA Hall of Fame center who played at UCLA but the Bill Walton who spent 24 seasons as head coach at the University of Houston from 1986-2009, leading the Cougars to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and winning the 1990 National Invitational Volleyball Championship.

Walton, who most recently served as head coach of the Texas Tornados, a club volleyball team, began his coaching career at the NCAA Division III level with Elmhust College (1981-85). He played from 1970-74 at George Williams College, where he was a two-time NAIA All-American. Walton, who helped George Williams claim the 1974 national championship during his senior season, was also a member of the 1976 and 1980 USA National Teams.

“Bill was a 23-year head coach at Houston and is a volleyball junkie with an analytical mind. I have known him since he was at Elmhurst and I was playing at Illinois State," she said. "We're looking forward to him bringing his wealth of experience and expertise to our program. We were very excited to add Bill to our staff."

George expects the quality of players in the new league will be matched by the quality of coaching.

Columbus, for example, will be coached by Angel Perez, who coached Las Pinkin de Corozal to back-to-back championships in the Puerto Rican Women's Superior Volleyball League and is considered one of the best-ever players in his home country.

Orlando's head coach is Amy Pauly, who was the associate head coach of USC's women's volleyball program and is considered one of the top up-and-coming coaches in the college volleyball ranks. Omaha hired Shelton Collier, a 2022 American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee who ranks seventh in career NCAA victories. Atlanta, meanwhile, will be led by head coach Todd Dagenais after he spent the past 15 seasons at the University of Central Florida.

From top to bottom, Pro Volleyball Federation is determined to turn heads by attracting some of the sport's top talent, including some of the best volleyball players and coaches in the U.S. along with elite players from around the world.

"Some players that we initially contacted were taking a wait-and-see approach, but once they saw some names we signed, they were like, ‘Wait, this is going to be a really good league,' and more and more of them started to want to be a part of the inaugural season," George said.

"This is their chance to place their name in history in terms of starting this thing. It's something that everybody will be able to say they were a part of and help others to build something that could provide future opportunities for other women.”

George is enthusiastic when she talks about taking on the new challenge of coaching pro athletes.

"I don't know if it's going to be different, but I will be working with players who are older, anywhere from 22 to 32 years of age in our case," she said. "Everyone is at different places in their lives. Some have had children. But they all understand how to train, how to get their bodies ready, and how to do those things they know they need to do to be successful.

"So whether it's college athletes or pros, they're all trying to compete at their highest level because they are invested – they understand their responsibility to the team and program as a whole. They all want to grow, they want to improve and keep going in the sport, and our job as coaches is to provide them the best opportunity to do that."

George is thrilled that she has been given an opportunity to help build something special in Grand Rapids. She wants the Rise to become a team that Michigan sports fans will wholeheartedly embrace as the newest sports franchise in the state.

"I want to get this organization rolling in the right direction and I feel we have all the right pieces in place," she said. "The league will continue to grow and we're going to add more teams and players in the future.

"I couldn't be more excited or more grateful about this opportunity for women and for Grand Rapids."