When she first started playing volleyball in the fourth grade, Casey Justice would help her mother put the laundry away by rolling up socks into a ball and bumping them into her bedroom.
“Everything you gave her,” said her mother, Laura Justice, “she would bump.”
Eden Hawes, who lives three miles away from Casey in Panama City Beach, Fla., was no less enthralled with volleyball. When she played goalie on her middle school soccer team, Eden would at times make a save by bumping the ball out of danger.
“Wrong sport!” her father, David Hawes, would yell.
Volleyball has definitely proven to be the right sport for these two 14-year-olds. Given their love for the game and their close proximity ever since the Justice family moved from Lexington, Ky., five years ago, it seems only natural that these two teenagers would gravitate toward each other as beach volleyball partners.
And, so far, the pairing has been a huge success. This past summer—their third together as partners—Casey and Eden went on a 73-4 roll, winning seven straight tournaments. Included in that run was a first-place showing at the U14 World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, Calif.
“We didn’t know what to expect, if they would be competitive or get kicked around,” said Laura Justice, who made the trip to California with the girls. “When we saw them win game after game, we were very proud.”
Right after that tournament, the girls stayed in Southern California and finished ninth in the Junior Olympics.
Eden, who is 5'7", and Casey, 5'6", also play indoor volleyball for Panama City Beach’s J. R. Arnold High School, where they are the only freshmen on the varsity squad. But their true passion is beach volleyball. The sand doesn’t seem to slow them down like it does some athletes.
“I think I move faster in the sand. I like to run in bare feet and you can’t do that [indoors],” Eden said. “Plus, I go for more balls because it doesn’t hurt when I dive on sand. I just enjoy the sport more, and that makes me try even harder.”
Casey has her own reasons for preferring the beach version of the sport.
“I don’t have to stand in one little spot like in indoor. I can move around and make plays,” she said. “I also like being outdoors on the sand, next to the beach. It’s perfect.”
Kevin Jones is the director of the Panama City Beach Florida Volleyball Club and has been coaching Eden and Casey since March. Besides coaching, he still competes in beach volleyball competitions himself. He grew up playing the sport in Southern California. Jones moved to Panama City Beach two years ago and fell in love with the turquoise waters and white-sand beaches.
“I lived in Maui for eight years, and Panama City Beach is probably the most picturesque place I’ve seen,” Jones said.
But there was one thing missing from the PC beach scene – volleyball. To remedy this problem, Jones collaborated with the owner of Hook’d Pier Bar & Grill and put up four beach courts on the restaurant’s beach front. Jones has plans to soon expand to 24.
“Volleyball is second nature in California,” said Jones, “and there is no reason why it can’t be that way here.”
Jones initially tried to start a corporate league for the employees of the local bars and restaurants, but, when that failed to take hold, he turned to the PCB youth. He now has 12 young athletes in his club, including eight girls and Casey and Eden, the duo who have emerged as the club’s top budding stars.
“Casey is a strong attacker and a good blocker,” Jones said. “Before I started working with them, they weren’t using a blocker. Now Casey is taking over the reins there. She just needs to work on her speed – turn and burn, running down deep balls.
“Eden is a good defender and passer. She already has the hustle instinct. She knows how to turn the ball toward the angle or down the line. She just needs to learn how to play behind the block,” Jones continued. “If Casey is blocking line, Eden has to sit in the angle. Those are things we are just now implementing.”
Jones said the girls were being scouted by several universities during a recent High Performance Camp in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and believed that college ball is definitely in their future.“Both of them are mentally strong and very respectful kids,” Jones said. “They really want to excel.”
Bills, bills, bills
Eden’s parents, Angela and David, have taken notice of how expensive it is to travel to California, Wisconsin, Georgia, Alabama, and other places where the girls can continue to play against top competition. So Angela started asking around, trying to figure out which tournaments would make the most sense for them to attend.
“Do everything you can,” one person advised. Angela was frank about her reaction. “That was not the answer we were looking for.”
Angela said the family spent $6,000 on volleyball this past summer, including private training and traveling to tournaments. Those expenses are why Casey, who sings and plays guitar, wants to put together a set of country and Christian music so she can perform at local restaurants and make some extra money. The girls said the expenses will all be worth if it allows them to keep playing together.
Determined to play
According to the girls and their parents, Casey and Eden have never had so much as an argument on the court. Their personalities seem to mesh perfectly in terms of their competitive commitment to the game.
And committed they are.
At a recent local tournament, there were no other junior girls, so Eden and Casey opted to play against amateur males, most of whom were adults. The girls lost every game, but they came close to pulling some upsets, surprising the guys. Playing against adult males also introduced the girls to some new court behavior.
“We learned some new language that day,” Eden quipped. Mostly, though, the girls are learning about volleyball, and they are taking every opportunity to hone their craft. The girls’ parents take turns carpooling, and when Laura Justice drops off Eden, a curious thing inevitably happens.
“As soon as we get to Eden’s house, the girls jump out of the van and take turns bumping and setting the ball up to the roof,” Laura Justice said. “When the ball rolls back down, they do it again. We can’t go home until they do it 52 times in a row.”
It seems these girls never tire of playing. After the girls had played 10 or 12 games in the oppressive heat at a tournament in Gulf Shores, Ala., they finally packed it in for the night and went to dinner. The parents thought volleyball was over for the day.
“Laura and I were exhausted from watching volleyball all day,” Angela Hawes said. “But the restaurant had a volleyball court out back and Casey and Eden ran out to play some more. I don’t know where they get the energy, but those girls will play until the sun goes down and you can’t see anymore.”
Originally published in January 2014