From the quiet and landlocked town of Elmira, few might ever expect a prodigy beach volleyball player would rise to the world stage. For one, there is very little beachfront available to engender that kind enthusiasm. For another, indoor beach volleyball facilities are few and far between in these parts.
But challenging those expectations is local volleyball star Judah Verbeek. At 16 years old, the young Elmira athlete is punching above his proverbial weight by competing at the Nanjing U19 World Beach Volleyball Championships in China next month as part of Team Canada.
It’s a huge milestone for Verbeek, elevating the young athlete to the global arena.
“Oh, it’s big,” agreed Greg Simone, head coach of the U18 Team Ontario Black beach volleyball team, of which Verbeek is a member. Simone will be accompanying Verbeek to the Nanjing games this year to lend his support. “This is like the first stepping stone that athletes get to have for international volleyball play.”
It’s not every day that a young sportsman can take on some of the world’s greatest players several years older than him. But for the already 6’5” 16-year-old, with potentially still bit more room to grow, Verbeek found he was able more than match his older opponents despite the age difference.
“We just went to the [19U] trials – like the tournament to qualify – just because we thought we’d give it a shot. And we actually did pretty good,” said Verbeek.
Verbeek and his beach volleyball partner Max Losier did not rank high enough to make the main draw, however, and will have to compete at a qualification tournament in China before being able to move on to the main draw at the U19 championships. The Verbeek/Losier duo will be playing against 23 other teams to compete for a minimum of five spots in the 19U championships proper.
Verbeek began playing volleyball five years ago, starting off at a recreation camp and moving on quickly to rep. volleyball. Indoor volleyball was how Verbeek was first introduced to the sport, and it was not until last year that he extended his talents to the beach.
“I went to a camp in the summer, and it was just for fun because I wanted to try it out. And then one of the coaches that I should play in … rep. volleyball,” explained Verbeek.
He played the sport mostly as a recreational aside, but it was only recently that he began to really pursue it with a steadfast determination.
“The first three years I kind of just played, but I didn’t really train. Then the last two years I started training, and I’ve gone pretty far in it, so I might as well keep going,” he said. That’s meant a massive amount of time on the courts, at the gym, and, in those spare moments of the day in between, catching up on missed school time and hitting the books.
The extra work paid off when last year Verbeek made the Team Ontario U16 beach volleyball team. He did so well during his time there and improved so much that this year he qualified again this year for the provincial team – only now in an age bracket much above his own.
“He’s playing up in 18U,” noted Verbeek’s mother, Hanneke Verbeek, with some pride. “He could play U16, but they thought it would be better, more competitive, for him to play U18.”
The Beach Volleyball U19 World Championships will be kicking off next month and run from July 9 to July 16. For Verbeek, the rising star athlete, the experience is sure to be a literal game changer.
“This is like the first taste of what are other countries doing, and what’s their style of play, and the level that they’re at, and how can they get to that level as well,” said coach Simone.
“So just seeing that level of competition and playing at that level of competition, when he comes back to Canada and to Ontario, you train at that level and you compete to that level,” he adds. “The limit of what you thought volleyball was changes.”