Ashley Battle and Maddie Plumlee have much in common.
Both come from families rich in basketball tradition. Both are standout high school athletes in the Triangle. Battle and Plumlee are tall, can leap high while maintaining excellent mid-air body control and with enough hand-eye coordination to defend against opponents’ shots.
Basketball is in their blood.
But not in their hearts.
Though both have made plans to play in the ACC, their love is volleyball, not basketball.
Battle, the daughter of former N.C. State basketball standouts and the sister of a college player; and Plumlee, the daughter of two former college basketball players and sister of three current and former Duke men’s players, face a pressure common to tall, athletic female athletes in this basketball-crazed state. Either play hoops or explain why you don’t.
In the past two years, it wasn’t uncommon for Battle to see teacher Sean Crocker, the Middle Creek football coach at the time, make a pitch to her to play basketball when she would run into him in the halls of the school. Crocker would make an a imaginary jump shot, then quizzically look at her. She would laugh. Battle was used to the sentiment.
Battle and Plumlee, whose high school volleyball seasons just ended, decided early in life that volleyball was their game and they have gotten support from their families.
Ashley Battle’s father, Alvin, played on the 1983 N.C. State NCAA championship team. Her mother, Debbie, then known as Debbie Shugart, played for N.C. State women’s basketball coach Kay Yow.
But Alvin Battle directed his daughter away from basketball.
He started her in tennis, hoping to avoid competition between her and older sister Amber, who now plays basketball at Richmond.
“I did want to play (basketball) because my sister was playing,” said Ashley Battle, who is committed to play at Virginia Tech next year. Later, Alvin tried to see if Ashley was interested in basketball. “By then I was like ‘No, I don’t want to – at all.’ ”
The Duke connection
Maddie Plumlee’s brothers are Marshall, Mason and Miles Plumlee. By the time Marshall Plumlee graduates from Duke, the Plumlee name will have been associated with area men’s basketball for nearly a decade. Her father, Perky Plumlee, played basketball for Tennessee Tech. Leslie Plumlee, her mother, played for Purdue.
Maddie Plumlee, a junior at St. Mary’s who is committed to play volleyball at Notre Dame, will not be part of that basketball legacy and seemed to be born with a dislike of basketball.
“Every time we’d go in the gym, I wouldn’t even want to learn a layup. I would never even touch a basketball,” Maddie said.
She still recalls playing in a youth league. She had played well, but, “I came out to the car and I started bawling and my dad was like ‘What’s wrong? Did you get hurt?’ and I was like ‘It’s just so rude. I don’t want to play anymore!’ I’ve always been kind of a non-contact person.”
But she wanted to play sports, so she took up volleyball. Maddie Plumlee is one of the top players in the state.
“It wasn’t more about fulfilling the family tradition,” Maddie Plumlee said. “My parents were happy for me and so were my brothers that I had found something I loved.”
For those players who try to play both volleyball and basketball, the expectations of coaches can make the dual-sport road a hard one. Athletes may have four coaches – a club and high school coach for each sport – each with separate demands to meet.
Sometimes, it’s too much and athletes feel forced to make an either-or decision.
That was the case for Kristen Harris, a former N.C. high school volleyball player of the year at Apex who is now a sophomore at Elon.
Harris wanted to play basketball and volleyball. She started for the basketball team as a freshman, but knew her college future was in volleyball.
Harris says her high school basketball coach told her after that first season that she had to pick one or the other.
“He made me choose between high school basketball and what I wanted to pursue, which was volleyball. So obviously I chose volleyball,” Harris said. “It’s just a good experience to play multiple sports throughout high school. I wanted to continue playing. I just wouldn’t have had the same experience after he had given me the ultimatum.”
Former Cary Academy player Haleigh McFarland said she was squeezed out of basketball by her AAU coach.
“I loved it for a while, I really had a passion for it. Then I got with a (AAU) coach and all he did was push me to gain weight and try to get me stronger. I was 15 at the time and couldn’t gain weight,” she said. “It got to the point that I didn’t enjoy it anymore. I felt the pressure to get a scholarship and play in college was more important to my coaches and everyone than to actually have fun ... I quit.”
After her sophomore year at Cary Academy, where she started in both sports, she told her parents and coaches she was quitting hoops. It was hard for them to understand at first, though her parents and friends came to recognize what a chore it had become.
“I started playing volleyball to just have fun. ... and I immediately loved it,” she said. “Even looking back it now it just blows my mind that they put that much pressure on young people.”
One of the Triangle’s best volleyball-basketball athletes was Wakefield’s Katie Slay, now a junior at volleyball powerhouse Penn State. She played four years of volleyball and two of basketball.
The 6-foot-6 athlete, who coaches 12-year-olds
in club volleyball, has seen the pressure being put on young girls.
“I just hope that children are given the opportunity to play both sports and decide more for themselves rather than (receive) pressure from an outside source,” Slay said. “I think that’s why I’m so happy with my decision. Of course I got guidance from my parents and other adult role models in my life, but I think ultimately the decision to play volleyball or basketball came from me, so I can live easily with that.”
Where basketball rules
Basketball owns the region. Volleyball is closely associated with the West Coast.
“I think that in North Carolina, basketball is such a big deal that being around the Tar Heels, N.C. State and Duke, that more people attended the basketball games,” Slay said. “There were people who cared about volleyball too. But more people knew about a big basketball game, and I think that just came with the area.”
But for some, the sport is volleyball and despite the looming presence of hoops, it’s going to stay that way.
“Life is not all about fulfilling a certain perspective people have on you,” Plumlee said. “It’s something that I loved and I’m not going to be ashamed of it. I’m proud that I play volleyball and I’m proud that I have my family behind me to support it. People may not agree, but...”
Plumlee didn’t finish her thought. She didn’t have to. Every time she plays the game she loves, she makes her point.