Alle-Kiski Valley volleyball guru struggles to rebuild flood-ravaged courts
It wasn’t just that someone lost a volleyball court in a flood.
It was that one of the Alle-Kiski Valley’s winningest girls’ volleyball coaches, Tom Phillips, lost two sand courts complete with night lights in Buffalo Township where several thousand girls have trained and many adults played.
After 29 years, the Big Valley Volleyball summer league will be closed until further notice. However, a couple of special fundraising tournaments will be scheduled at some point to pay for repairs.
It’s quite the blow to the hosts and players to halt the informal summer sand volleyball league, which typically attracts more than 140 girls from the A-K Valley and beyond. Not just the Freeport Yellowjackets that Phillips has been coaching since 2002 and taken to WPIAL Class AA semifinals for six consecutive seasons, as well as the school’s first state title in 2017, and numerous WPIAL championships.
“I don’t know of any other school or coach who put sand courts in at his house with lights — it’s remarkable, it’s real dedication,” said Jodi Crytzer of Freeport, whose daughter Kate, 12, will not get to play on the sand courts for the first time this year.
Crytzer’s oldest daughter, Claire, played on those sand courts for six years when she was at Freeport. Now, Claire is a sophomore at Juniata College, where she plays volleyball.
Devastated but still laid back is the only way to describe the temperament of Phillips, 65. He and his wife, Jamie, operate the Big Valley nonprofit to put on the summer league where girls pay $10 each to play once a week. Last year, girls from seventh grade to college competed on 19 teams from throughout the region.
One of factors that have made the Phillips’ home a popular destination is its setting in the Buffalo Creek valley, a rich, biologically significant and beautiful area with steep, rocky hemlock-lined hillsides and the rollicking Little Buffalo Creek. The creek commonly rises fast but recedes just as quickly.
But not on the evening of May 28 when Phillips recorded 6.25 inches of rain in one day in his “rain bucket.” He, Jamie and their two dogs had to escape to higher ground as Little Buffalo Creek spilled over its banks.
When he left at 8:30 p.m., Phillips noted that two of his three courts were submerged. Swept away was between 225 and 250 tons of special athlete-friendly sand that he hauled from Cleveland .
When he returned the next day, the courts were not only gone, but were covered over by 150 tons of rocks. It took him and two others using special machinery two days to remove.
Fallen trees deposited by the floodwaters are piled up like matchsticks. Only more heavy machinery can tackle the mammoth job.
But that isn’t the worst of the problem.
Recent rains have caused the creek to jump its bank like it never did before and, combined with fallen trees damming the water, it has inundated the portion of Phillips’ property where the courts are. That had never happened in 20 years since the courts have been there.
“I can’t put sand back in there until I can get this fixed,” he said.
But Phillips wants to find a way.
“We’ll get back there,” he said.
Then the coach in him kicks in: “Anything worth having is worth working for; that’s the way I look at it.”
He build it, they came
So how does one have regulation-size, professional quality volleyball courts complete with special sand in a small town in the Alle-Kiski Valley?
Become an intense amateur volleyball player and a coach.
More than three decades ago, Phillips and his wife were looking for something to do. They learned how to play volleyball and joined a coed league at Freeport Area’s junior high. Phillips also joined a men’s league, traveling all over to compete in tournaments. Among other things, they won the Ohio state championship with a 45-and-older team.
Their passion grew, and they decided to start their nonprofit and hold games, well, in their own backyard.
The property is along Little Buffalo Creek near where Phillips grew up. He later cleared it and built his spacious cabin. It’s surrounded by flat land — perfect for a volleyball court.
Or two, or three.
Jamie riffs on the movie “The Field of Dreams” and says, “If you build it, they will come.”
They sure did.
The couple even flew in several professional volleyball players and their families who gave volleyball clinics about 15 years ago. And they returned several times.
A place to learn, have fun
Then when Phillips became Freeport’s girls volleyball coach 19 years ago, they soon started to offer the summer sand play for the Freeport girls and other players.
“This is where they learn,” Phillips said. “The sand is forgiving. They can dive and hit the sand.”
A bonus is that sand provides a nice workout, further conditioning the young athletes.
“It’s about fun and how to play. It’s easy to play,” said Phillips, a retired Allegheny Technologies Inc. steelworker who worked at the former Bagdad plant and in Vandergrift. “The pressure is not there.”
Paula Mason of Buffalo Township was walking on the Butler-Freeport Community Trail a number of years ago when she stumbled upon the Phillips courts during a volleyball event. She had no idea what was going on.
“There was electricity in the air,” she said. “There was music and people playing volleyball.”
A few years later when her daughter, Hanna, played for Freeport and played in the summer sand league, she realized the significance of Phillips’ home and court.
“There’s nothing like it in the area,” she said.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .