User ID: Password:

November 8, 2013

Paying it forward

By: Marc Mullen

Tech volleyball player Sam Gostling is appreciative of the many people who have helped her become a great player and person, and she is paying them back by being a great role model for others

Sam Gostling played soccer as a kid, but picked up volleyball in middle school, received a scholarship from Virginia Tech, and has developed into one of the Hokies’ best players.

She may not be playing in front of 60,000 fans or followed by thousands more on social media, and the destination of legions of diehard Hokie fans in late December doesn’t rest on her shoulders. But senior volleyball player Sam Gostling certainly feels the pressure.

For her, though, it’s not really the pressure of having to win or perform at the highest of levels. For her, it’s the pressure of being a role model, having always to remember that younger fans look up to Virginia Tech student-athletes from all sports.

“I think the worst thing about being a student-athlete is maybe the pressure because you know you have younger kids looking up to you, and that’s difficult,” she said. “Because you always have to make sure you’re being such a good role model, and sometimes you might forget that.

“And that’s just hard to keep in your head at all times because people are always watching you. And some people want to see you fail, too. So I think it’s just the pressure you have from other people.”

Gostling knows first hand how much of an impact she can make on younger fans by playing volleyball. Thanks to the digital age, she can make a connection with all her biggest fans, including one who lives more than 500 miles away.

Charlize Delair, a 6-year-old girl who lives in Albany, N.Y., might be Gostling’s biggest fan. She makes her parents, Kris and Kirk, fire up the computer on Tech volleyball game nights and watch, when possible, as Gostling and the Hokies take on their various opponents.

“My little cousin, Charlize, she looks up to me so much, and she’s such an athletic little thing,” Gostling said. “She told me that she wants to try volleyball, and I was like ‘OK, go for it!’ I help her as much as I can, but I don’t see her that much. So when I do, I try to be with her as much as possible. I think it just makes me proud that I can be like an older sister to her.

“The past few games, they’ll sit and watch my games on the computer, which I know cannot be exciting because of how difficult it is to get it through the Internet. But she’ll say, ‘Yeah Sammie! Go Sammie!’ to the computer.

“And after one of the games, we didn’t have a game the next day, but my aunt texted me and said, ‘Charlize woke up and asked, ‘Is Sammie playing today? Does she have a game today?’ They are coming for my senior night, so I’m really excited for her to see a game in person.”

Being a role model to a younger generation is a way for Gostling to “pay it forward.” After all, numerous individuals have helped her get to where she is today.

For the 6-foot-1 native of Charlotte, N.C., volleyball was not her first choice when it came to athletics endeavors. She played soccer for nine years, absolutely loved it and thought that would be her pathway to college. And, of course, being from the state of North Carolina, she grew up idolizing Mia Hamm, the former North Carolina great and U.S. Olympian.

However, around the seventh grade, Gostling believed her soccer growth had reached a plateau and was looking to add something else.

“I just wanted to play another sport,” she said. “I was just such a tomboy growing up, so I think it was just that and my friends. They were trying out, and they wanted me to as well. And that was definitely one of the reasons why I did, but I just think it was to play another sport – to see what it was like and to see if I enjoyed it.”

In stepped Luke Hill, her stepfather who had decided to help her. He set up a string in the backyard and went out and practiced with Gostling. They worked on serving mostly, as they thought that was the most important thing to concentrate on at the time.

“So I tried out in seventh grade,” she said. “And I didn’t make it.”

Sounds like the plight of an even more well known Tar Heel state athlete – Michael Jordan, who did not make the varsity basketball team as a sophomore (he did play on the junior varsity team). Gostling recalled that only eighth graders made the volleyball team (and in Jordan’s case, rarely did sophomores make the varsity team).

“So I was like, ‘Oh well, I’ll try next year,’” she said. “I got into club [a club volleyball team] that year and I played middle [blocker], and it was just so different. Volleyball is a hard sport to learn. Then in eighth grade, I tried out again and I made it, and our team won the conference. I had new friends, and it was awesome.”

Fast-forward to Gostling’s junior at Ardrey Kell High School – a new high school that opened her freshman year and had no seniors. Gostling made the varsity team that season, and she met a very influential person in her life, a woman named Zoe Bell.

Bell was just hired at the school as the new volleyball coach and was a proven winner at her previous high school, Providence, guiding that team to 12 conference titles and four state crowns. It took her just two years to take Ardrey Kell from a new program in 2006 to the 4-A state title game in 2009.

Led by Gostling, Ardrey Kell rolled to a 24-6 record while finishing second in its conference and runner-up in the state tournament. In the process, the team knocked off three conference champions before being derailed by J.H. Rose High School, who finished the season with a 25-0 record, in the title game.

“That season was awesome,” Gostling said. “We knew we had such a good team, especially with Zoe Bell being our coach. Her coming from Providence and having four championships … we were like, ‘This is awesome!’

“We went into every match just believing that we can win this. We might be new and young, but we have a chance and we have the talent. So I think we were just on an adrenaline rush the whole season. Just playing each match and winning was awesome.”

Sam Gostling is not only a role model for her younger teammates,
but also to many younger volleyball players, including a
6-year-old cousin who keeps tabs on her from New York.

Gostling holds Bell and Rick Kiser, one of her other coaches, in high regard and credited them with getting her to Tech. She also appreciates the relationship she still has with them, whether she gets a text of encouragement before a game or having one of them being a summer workout partner.

“My coaches, Zoe Bell and Rick Kiser, have always been there for me,” she said. “Heading from my sophomore year into my junior year at Tech, I went home for the summer, and we had these workouts. I knew I had to do them, but it’s just so hard to do workouts on my own.

“So my high school coach, Zoe Bell, was like, ‘I’ll work out with you, and I’ll make sure you do it.’ So each day, I had a set time to go to the high school where she worked, and we would do our lifts and workouts. She would have about an hour and half for lunch, but she took time just to help me get better, and I would go and practice with her high school team and club team. She has just always been there for me.”

“And my other coach, Rick Kiser, has texted me before every game since my freshman year, just to see how practice had been that week. Sometimes, I don’t respond because I just want to focus, but I’ll either call him or text him afterward. It’s just relaxing, and he always knows the right things to say. He always wants the best for me and always knows what’s best for me, and he always agrees with whatever I say just to make me feel better. I know he does.”

Once in Blacksburg, Gostling immediately gravitated and received the guidance from former Hokies Cara Baarendse, a two-time honorable mention All-American, and Jen Wiker.

“I learned a lot from them,” Gostling said. “Cara’s a very quiet person, and I’m kind of like her. She’s not a vocal leader. She’s more of a lead-by-example player, and I feel like that’s how I am, too. She probably doesn’t know this, but I definitely looked up to her like that because I felt like we kind of had that connection.

“And Jen, she was just so different, very vocal and outgoing. We had our talks and we had our times together and she gave me tips, and she was just really open about everything. We became really close, and I enjoyed that a lot.”

Gostling has experienced many things over the past four seasons at Tech, highlighted by the Hokies qualifying for their first NCAA Championship when she was a freshman and her and a couple of other teammates heading to Colorado Springs, Colo., to try out for the USA Volleyball national squad.

“That was nerve-wracking and awesome at the same time,” Gostling said of her Colorado experience. “Just being on that campus – the Olympic campus – it was crazy. I saw all these other volleyball players coming and knowing that UCLA had just won the national championship and their players were there and these girls are amazing … and I’m just a sophomore. It was incredible, and I learned a lot from it.”

Gostling is also learning how fast four years travels. The sociology major is considering going back to school for a master’s degree at some point, but she also is thinking about being either a counselor or a therapist. First, though, she knows that there is still work to be done during the 2013 season and some players to help along the way.

“Lindsey Owens, we definitely have a connection, like I did with those older players,” Gostling said. “She’s a very talented freshman, better than I ever was as a freshman. I just want her to get better. I will give her any kind of tips, and they might not be the nicest – I mean, I can be critical of her – but she’s tough. She can handle it, and that’s what I like about her.

“But as seniors, we need to make sure the team understands how much work we need to put in to get back to NCAAs. So we try to make sure that these underclassmen understand how incredible that experience is. We made it as freshmen, but haven’t been back, so you never know how many chances you’ll get. We don’t say it’s our only shot, but we make them know. We try to get them to understand how important it is to us, and we want to make sure that it’s important to them also. We put it in their heads every game.”

Heading into the month of November, the Hokies’ volleyball team was three wins better than they were at the same point during the 2010 season when they reached the national tournament, and their RPI was in the mid-40s. But work still needs to be done if they want to advance to just their second NCAA Championship in school history.

Gostling will probably always remember her final game as a Hokie. It will either be in the NCAA Championship, which would bookend a tremendous career, or in front of one of her biggest fans. Tech concludes the regular season at Cassell Coliseum on Nov. 30 against Pittsburgh on senior night.

Either way, a 6-year-old fan in New York can’t wait.