CHEN girls right at home beating everyone in sight

Volleyball: They don't see their teammates every day, but an 11-0 record says it all about how well these home-schooled players work together.

September 30, 2001|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

When Vanessa Happel first heard of the CHEN athletic program, she was thrilled about the opportunity to play for a team representing her "school," the Christian Home Educators' Network. Still, there was some initial reluctance to join up.

"Like everybody else, I thought, `It's a home-school team -- how good can they be?' When I got there, I was really surprised at how good they were. That just shows people shouldn't underestimate home schoolers," said Happel, a 6-foot-2 1/2 senior middle hitter now in her second season with the CHEN volleyball team.

No one is underestimating CHEN volleyball now.

After sweeping the No. 13-ranked Institute of Notre Dame, 15-5, 15-13, 15-12, on Wednesday, the Bravehearts are 11-0. They have not dropped a game all season.

Ranked 11th in preseason after a 23-3 campaign a year ago, the Bravehearts have lived up to their billing and have bounced up to No. 8 in The Sun's Top 15 poll.

The recognition is something new for the Baltimore County-based athletic program that began in 1991 with a boys basketball team. Until this fall, no CHEN team had ever been ranked.

"We're excited that people come out and acknowledge that we're a good team," said senior outside hitter Bridget Thornton.

Now that they've set the record straight about the strength of their volleyball team, the girls would like to set aside some other illusions about their educational experience.

"People think that our parents are smothering us and not letting us see the real world, but all of us have different jobs," Thornton said. "I work in a restaurant and I work as a lifeguard. I'm exposed to so many different people."

Through the athletic program, an offshoot of the statewide network that dates back to 1988, CHEN home-schooled students have opportunities to participate in everything that traditionally schooled students do.

"The biggest misconception is that we're not really a school, and we are," Bravehearts coach Cary Lyon said. "It's just that the parents are the teachers. We don't meet in the building for all things, but many of these kids are in class together."

While CHEN students do study at home under their parents' tutelage, the program has a local co-op that brings them together in other members' homes or church facilities for some subjects.

Terry Rust, CHEN chairman of the board, said all parents are expected to contribute, so some teach classes they are uniquely qualified for, such as science labs. Other parents teach such diverse subjects as English literature, robotics and drama. Some coach.

Sports fall right in line.

"If you have gifted athletes who are home schooled, this just provides the perfect atmosphere," said Sue Happel, mother of CHEN volleyball players Vanessa and Faith Happel. "If you're home-schooling, you really care about what kind of interaction your child has, and you don't want them interacting a great deal of time with people who have different values than you do."

In November, the Bravehearts finished third in the National Christian Homeschool Athletic Association Volleyball Tournament at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. The goal for this season is to win the tournament, which draws about 20 teams nationwide.

That likely will be its greatest challenge. With a roster of mostly club veterans, CHEN is overwhelming the opposition in the Maryland Christian Athletic League.

The players' statistics bear that out. While most top-notch hitters average about 3.0 to 3.5 kills, senior outside hitter Chelsea Lyon averages 6.8, followed by Vanessa Happel (4.7) and Thornton (4.3). Setters Grace Lyon and Brittany Umetin, who usually alternate games, average about 10 assists each.

Cary Lyon admits his team hasn't played the toughest competition, but not because he hasn't tried.

He wants to schedule the area's top teams, but said that coaches either don't want to play CHEN or they are already locked into a full slate of matches.

"I don't care about being undefeated," said Lyon, whose team swept then-No. 10 C. Milton Wright, the only public school on its schedule.

"I would like to find somebody who could whip us and then play a tougher schedule, because then we would get better. I've improved our schedule every year and our record's gotten better every year."

Building a competitive schedule is just one challenge facing the CHEN team.

The commitment requires a lot of travel time, so the Bravehearts practice only once or twice a week at Rosewood Center in Owings Mills. They play home games at Fair Meadows, formerly Eastern Christian College, near Bel Air. Commutes can be long for players such as the Happels, who live in Ellicott City, and freshman Roberta Holehouse of Havre de Grace.

Numbers can be a problem, too. Even though there are approximately 1,400 families in CHEN statewide, the varsity volleyball team has just nine girls, including Christine Wotell and Joy Sleeman. There weren't enough girls for a JV team until 10 days ago.

Still, the players who have made the commitment wouldn't trade the experience. Most of them also played basketball and softball for CHEN and they have become a tight-knit social group, as well.

"We're all best friends," said Chelsea Lyon, an All-Baltimore City/County second-team selection last season. "When people hear about home-schooling, they think we don't have any social interaction, but we have this sports program. Without it, we would all be going insane."

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