Written by: Crina Mustafa

Follow: @crinamm

December Madness is hitting several parts of the United States, and as women’s college volleyball slowly but surely earns its share of the spotlight, some Canadian athletes are playing key roles in taking their teams to the promised land.

Raeven Chase, originally out of Toronto, and a graduate student playing for the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, recorded three kills and three blocks in a 3-0 sweep last Saturday over Western Kentucky. It clinched the first Sweet Sixteen appearance for the Lady Vols in 18 years.

Ranked #3 in the U.S., Wisconsin also advanced to the third round with a 3-0 win over Miami. Led by 6’9” phenom Anna Smrek out of Welland, Ontario, the Badgers are a favourite to advance to the national semifinals and championship to be played December 14 and 17 in Tampa Bay, Florida. Smrek registered 17 points on 15 kills to move on to the Sweet Sixteen.

For these Canadians, the opportunities presented by volleyball are now being set.

“I remember practicing in a really small gym [in Toronto], and I remember going to an American tournament where there are 80 courts lined up,” said Chase. “It was really surreal.” 

Chase initially grew up playing softball as a kid, along with many other sports. She played for 12 years until realizing that she wanted to get a full scholarship to play sports in the U.S. After talking to her coach, she had two options: basketball or volleyball. “I really don't like to run, so I picked volleyball,” she laughed.

This is Chase’s first year playing for the Lady Vols but her fifth year in the NCAA. Before college, she played for Canadian clubs in Toronto with the Etobicoke Titans and Pakmen Volleyball in Mississauga. She finally made it to the NCAA in 2018, where she played for Eastern Michigan University before transferring. 

The Lady Vols went 24-4 during the season and are seeded third in their bracket. They are looking for a spot in the quarterfinals with a win on Thursday against the second-seeded Texas Longhorns. This will be a challenging opponent but Chase believes the Lady Vols are “the team to beat.” Beyond that, she has professional aspirations in the sport, saying that her body is still ready and she is hungry to keep playing volleyball.

Anna Smrek’s father Mike was the backup centre to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the 1987 and 1988 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, so she knows better than most that a professional career, and championships, are realistically within reach.

Cassidy Lichtman played for the U.S. National Team from 2011-2016 and across many clubs worldwide. She spent the entirety of her life in a gym starting from a young age. Her mom was a former player who coached her and her older brother at her club. As she transitioned from playing into leadership roles within women’s volleyball, she began to learn even more about the business of the game.

“I knew that I wanted to play for the national team,” Lichtman said when asked when she knew she wanted to go pro. She had watched the Olympics as a child but did not know that volleyball could be a professional career until she was playing in college and her older teammates were thinking about their pro careers.

She is now the Director of Volleyball at Athletes Unlimited, one of North America's first professional leagues for women’s volleyball. The third season of Athletes Unlimited Volleyball wrapped up on November 6 after a five-week season.

She said she initially believed there wouldn’t be a women’s league in the USA: “It was really eye-opening to see the first season of Athletes Unlimited and realize that the problem wasn't that people didn't want to watch volleyball. The problem was that we had not been invested properly in the past.”

In her current role, she’s seen the money roll in as coverage grows. “It's very quietly been a giant sport for a long time, but it's getting to the point where it's undeniable.”

Players like Cassidy Lichtman, who didn’t have all the resources growing up, are paving the way for players like Raeven Chase and Anna Smrek to realize their professional callings. Volleyball is set to be the next prominent women’s sport to step up. Professional women’s volleyball isn’t just here to stay; it’s here to thrive.