All posts by leahvann2020

‘The Invisible Cut’: A look into racism in fencing

By Leah Vann & Emine Yücel
Medill Reports

This summer, Boris Vaksman, a prominent fencing coach for St. John’s University and New York’s Fencers Club, was fired after he was recorded making racist remarks on a Zoom call.

The comments, which followed the killing of George Floyd and in the wake of a nationally amplified conversation on race, fueled Black fencers to speak out about the racism they have been experiencing for decades in the predominantly white sport.

In “The Invisible Cut,” reporters Emine Yücel and Leah Vann talked to Black fencers from across the country about the racism that plagues their community and the steps they have been taking to create a more inclusive atmosphere in the sport.

Leah Vann covers sports at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @LVann_Sports. Emine Yücel covers social justice at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @emineirmakyucel.

Photo at top: Team USA Olympic foil fencer Nzingha Prescod strikes a stance. After being verbally attacked on a Zoom call back in April, she now leads a diversity task force address racism in USA Fencing. (Emma Trim/Courtesy)

Illinois models boys’ and men’s volleyball growth at all levels

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

Christine Giunta’s deep, sharp voice swells in the Glenbard West High School gym, permeating the air with commands to the boys’ volleyball players who dwarf her in height.

Giunta is not only the head coach, but also the founder of the boys’ volleyball program at Glenbard West. She developed it from scratch, and grew it to become one of the state’s most perennial programs.

The team started in 2002, but wasn’t recognized as a varsity sport until 2006. Since the 2014-15 season, the Glenbard West Hilltoppers have only missed the state championship once, and they’ve won it three times.

“I was the coach who started with nothing,” Giunta said. “We were practicing outside in grass, we were in backyards, local public churches, anywhere we could find a gym and open  doors to us. I’ve seen everything,”

On May 22, Giunta’s program will host the Volley Lights King of the Hill Stadium Classic, the first-ever high school boys’ volleyball outdoor showcase, where Glenbard West will host Naperville North and Marist High schools on its own Memorial Field. She hopes it draws more attention to the sport, which is steadily growing across the country at both the high school and collegiate levels.

“I promote boys’ volleyball,” Giunta said. “Any boy that really likes the sport and has struggled in other sports, if they take it seriously and want to be a student, they can play. If there is a volleyball opportunity and there is an opportunity to do something extraordinary, I will do something to help them.”

In the 2018-19 season, boys’ high school volleyball participation reached an all-time high with 2,692 schools in 25 states across the U.S. offering programs, according to the National Federation for State High School Associations (NFHS). The number of boys playing in these programs totals 65,563, a 16% increase since the 2014-15 season.

Illinois has 7,341 boys high school volleyball players, second-most to California’s 22,224 players.

On Feb. 14, the Pepperdine vs. USC volleyball match featured six players from Illinois. Two of No. 3 Pepperdine’s players, JT Ardell and Zac Norvid, came from Giunta’s program at Glenbard West.

“With the culture of where I’m from, it’s always been something that surrounded me,” Norvid said after the game. “California is known for the talent in men’s volleyball, so not too much is different. If anything, we play on the beach a little more here.”

But part of Giunta’s success in growing the program at Glenbard West results from her persistence in scouting, especially when there are so many sports options for boys. She claims it’s all about the type of sport you can study and how you study, just as you would for any subject in school. That’s how she, a former collegiate softball player, learned how to coach it.

“If you can study that and understand the game, you can take huge advantage of it,” Giunta said. “You have to play on the whim, there’s nothing planned when something goes wrong.”

While her program is competitive, she doesn’t let anyone slip through the cracks. More than 50 boys try out for the high school program each year, and she won’t cut any of the freshmen.

“JT [Ardell] got cut from his junior high team,” Giunta said. “And I went and said, ‘Buddy it’s not over, you will have a chance. Try some summer training. Someone is not going to let you go. Someone is going to trust that you need to prove people wrong.’”

Ardell, a 6-foot-9 middle blocker at Pepperdine, originally played football, but went on to letter three seasons on Glenbard West’s volleyball team and was named to Volleyball Magazine’s Fab 50 list. He tallied a season-high of nine total blocks against the USC Trojans on Feb. 14.

“It’s taken a lot more seriously than high school volleyball is in other programs,” Ardell said following the game at Pepperdine.

Glenbard West seniors Ben Harrington and Noah Cavalcante said Giunta helps them recognize that they can play for schools that might be out of their reach based on academics alone. Harrington will play for Princeton next year.

“When we were kids, Paul Bischoff [former player] went to Stanford so she says, ‘If you’ll come play, you’ll be able to go to Stanford or Pepperdine,” Harrington said.

Success at the Olympic level also fuels Illinois’ growth in the sport. Warrenville South High School in Wheaton has won seven state championships. Its alumni include USA National team members like Sean Rooney, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist, and Thomas Jaeschke and Jeff Jendryk, who currently reside on this year’s roster.

“When you can bring back Olympians to talk to the school, the local media starts talking about them,” Warrenville South head coach Bill Schreier said. “Those are always positive things that advance the cause. Now, for those tall kids, there’s a massive explosion on the DIII level, now there’s more spots for these kids to play at the collegiate level.”

Illinois is home to 22 collegiate programs, including two Division I and two Division II schools, which play for the national collegiate championship. Both Illinois College and Illinois Wesleyan will also add to the tally with new programs expected to debut in 2020-21.

But players don’t have to travel far from home to play at the most elite level. Loyola University Chicago is ranked No. 9 in the latest national collegiate RPI standings, while Lewis University in Romeoville is ranked No. 5.

“It’s kind of like a chicken and the egg situation,” said Loyola University head men’s volleyball coach Mark Hulse. “Boys’ volleyball is growing, college programs are growing in conjunction. Illinois has had boys’ volleyball for a long time, longer than we’ve had strong collegiate volleyball. I think it makes them realize you don’t have to go 2,000 miles away from home to win a national championship.”

Illinois isn’t the only state adding collegiate programs. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association announced in September 2019 that it will add six men’s collegiate volleyball programs to the mix in 2020-21.

At the high school level, Colorado will become the 26th state to sanction boys’ volleyball as an official high school sport in 2020-21. According to Bethany Brookens of the Colorado High School Athletics Association, the state has already established approximately 55 high school programs through its two pilot seasons.

Giunta sees a bright future for boys’ and men’s volleyball with Colorado’s addition to the mix. She hopes more boys can find opportunities through the sport she’s grown to love for its fast-paced play and strategic nature.

“Any boy that really likes the sport that has struggled in other sports, if they take it seriously and want to be a student, they can play,” Giunta said.

Glenbard West High School head coach Christine Giunta talks to her players during a drill at the opening day of tryouts on Monday, March 9 at Glenbard West Field House. Giunta started the boys’ volleyball program in 2002 and has led it to three state titles in the past five years. (Leah Vann/MEDILL)

Bridget Venturi Veenema makes opportunity a focal point for girls’ baseball clinics

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

Former pro player Bridget Venturi Veenema leads a group of girls aged 8 to 14 who are standing on one foot and holding baseballs.

They’re practicing proper pitching form at the mound inside the University of Illinois-Chicago’s physical education building on Sunday during one of the six Illinois Girls Baseball’s weekly clinics.

One by one, girls take turns practicing their wind up, cocking, acceleration and follow-throughs in slow motion, with Veenema adjusting the intricacies of their body positions before letting them fire fastballs at a catcher before them. No matter how fast the ball moves, her face lights up seeing the girls learn the game she knows so well.

“I see that there’s a spark in those kids’ eyes,” Veenema said.  Veenema is one of the coaches at the Illinois Girls Baseball’s six-week series of clinics in February and March at UIC. As a professional baseball player, she wants to provide girls with the opportunities she’s had through the sport.

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Chicago’s Latinx community struggles to find answers to mental health

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

Linette Aleman, 20, rubbed her hands together as she sat in Los Gallos restaurant on Nov. 17, 2019, recalling the first panic attack she had 11 months ago.

Aleman vividly remembers the episode. She described the feeling of her shoulders rising up uncontrollably, and what followed was a series of physically uncomfortable sensations her conscious mind couldn’t control.

Sitting in the back seat of her dad’s car, she felt her neck tighten, stomach twist and temperature heighten. She managed to mumble, “I don’t feel good,” over and over again until her dad finally pulled the car over. Continue reading

Why the Genesis Open changed to an Invitational

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES — Even a slight change in name gave the Genesis Invitational more weight on the PGA Tour this year.

The Genesis Invitational in previous years played in an Open format, fielding 144 golfers that play through a Monday qualifying round to earn a spot. The switch to the Invitational means that only 120 golfers with an exemption status can compete and that the winner will receive a three-year instead of two-year exemption on the PGA Tour. 

“I think we all looked at it as an opportunity to liken Tiger Woods and his legacy to a couple of other players like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer,” PGA Tour director of communications Amanda Herrington said. “We have three events on the PGA Tour schedule which has 49 events total. There are three events: the Genesis Invitational, Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard in Orlando and then the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide and that’s Jack Nicklaus’ tournament.” 

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Young players look to instill winning culture in LA Kings’ victory over the Calgary Flames

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES – There isn’t a lot on the line at this point in the NHL season, but Cal Petersen seized an opportunity to show what he’s capable of.

Following the Kings’ deal to trade Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford to the Maple Leafs for Trevor Moore and two third-round draft picks on Feb. 5, the 25-year-old goalie slipped in as the next guy up behind 13-year veteran Jonathan Quick.

“Ever since I got to juniors, it’s been a goal,” Petersen said. “Every year I’ve been climbing a couple of rungs. I want to make the opportunity count.”

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Two weeks later, the LA community continues to process Kobe Bryant’s death

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES – Two weeks ago, Tiger Woods learned of Kobe Bryant’s death from his caddie Joe LaCava as he walked off the 18th green at Torrey Pines. As he tees off for the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club this week, he’s still grappling with the death of a friend.

“Part of me thinks that it’s not real,” Woods said on Tuesday. “I don’t really know what I said post-round. I was in shock just like everyone else, trying to put it in words going forward. The reality of the situation is Kobe and Gigi are not here, but that’s hard to accept.”
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Chicago curling clubs embrace the ice

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

During an otherwise miserable Chicago winter, local curling clubs are hosting classes to teach people about the ancient sport.

Curling is like life-sized shuffleboard on ice, where players slide large stones and melt the path ahead to drive them toward a target,  accumulating points. Its origins date back as far as 1511 in Scotland.

Although the sport has been around for centuries, it wasn’t until 1998 that it became an Olympic sport.

Chicago-area curling clubs such as Windy City Curling, Chicago Curling Club, Second City Curling Club and Exmoor Curling Club are coming together this winter to host “Learn to Curl” classes, encouraging people to learn the sport and  generate interest.

The clubs came together to host Learn to Curl classes on Jan. 8-10 and Jan. 22-24 at Gallagher Way, but continue to host weekly classes at their own clubs through April. Continue reading

Ski jumping competition lives on for 115 years in Illinois

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

An uncharacteristically large, steep hill lies in the depths of the Fox River Forest Preserve in Fox River Grove. More than 100 years ago, a group of Norwegian immigrants deemed it fit for one of their favorite sports, creating a tradition that persists today.

Every year, world-class ski jumpers migrate to Fox River Grove, a village in McHenry County, just over 45 miles northwest of Chicago’s loop, for America’s oldest ski jumping competition at the Norge Ski Club. The club traces its heritage back to those original immigrants.

The Annual Winter Ski Jump Tournament entered its 115th year of competition on Jan. 25-26 and welcomed 107 of the world’s most elite junior and professional ski jumpers to compete in front of a crowd of 10,000 Chicago-area residents. Continue reading

Chicago’s Kansas City Chiefs bar fans erupt during playoff win

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

Professional and collegiate team flags hanging from sports bars decorate many streets in Chicago. Outside, it’s Bears, Cubs, Sox, Blackhawks and Bulls country. But inside, each bar shelters a haven of raucous sports fans avid to share the spirit for hometown teams that may be far away.

The AFC divisional rounds of the National Football League playoffs featured the Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans on Jan. 12. As a football fanatic with no team in the playoffs, I decided to see what it was like inside these clandestine cocoons that weren’t my own. Would the true believers accept a stranger who was merely there to observe as a reporter?

The Chiefs kick off at 2:05 p.m., and as I approach Toons Bar & Grill on north Southport Avenue, the bouncer warns me that they’ve met capacity. But if I was on my own, I was more than welcome to come in. He says there might be more room in the back, so naturally, I weave my way through the red, yellow and white jerseys to order a Stella at the front. Continue reading