Varsity Volleyball

Two Kansas girls, each dominating in this coastal sport, pledge to the same university

One scholarship offer was all Ella Larkin needed.

Larkin is a junior at Bishop Carroll High. She was an All-Metro volleyball selection in 2018 and is a strong candidate to earn that honor again after she helped push Carroll to a third straight state tournament berth.

If Larkin didn’t shut down her recruitment after the first offer, she would have picked up others. But there was reason enough to call it off.

On Nov. 18, Valley Center senior Ellie Shank announced her commitment to LSU’s beach volleyball team. Although Larkin hadn’t received an official offer because she was only a sophomore, she said there was a general understanding it would come.

So when it did arrive, Larkin walked into the Valley Center Invitational on Sept. 14. She found Shank, her beach teammate of more than a half decade, and told her she was headed to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“I feel like we think the same things,” Larkin said. “We both know what’s going to happen next. It’s like we can finish each other’s sentences in the sand.”

Courtesy of Ellie Shank

Larkin and Shank met in third grade playing MAYB basketball. They became friends and found a deeper love in volleyball, specifically beach volleyball.

At 11, they became beach partners. Several years later, the two girls from Kansas have gone from coast to coast playing against foes who spend almost every day on the beach.

And they have been outstanding.

This summer, Shank and Larkin competed in four national tournaments with college recruiters watching. At the junior championships in Gulf Shores, Alabama, they finished third.

They also played in Hermosa Beach, California, at the AAU National Championships and finished runner-up in the championship match to a pair from Puerto Rico who is already earning money for winning volleyball tournaments.

The two girls from Kansas went 17-1. About 100 teams entered.

All of this is more impressive for an obvious reason: There are no beaches in Wichita.

“I feel more frustrated than anything because I know the girls in California are getting better every single day,” Shank said. “I struggle to find one night a week where I can gather four people to play doubles indoors. Even if I do, we don’t get to play in the elements.”

Shank said when they go to national tournaments, almost every other pairing has a coach it can turn to between matches or during timeouts. Sometimes, Larkin’s parents are there, but others, they are on their own.

Larkin and Shank practice at the Wichita Sports Forum when they can. But on top of rental prices for the sand courts, the pair must find players to practice against.

In California, it’s not a challenge to find matches. Larkin said sometimes she and Shank play against women in their late 20s. Sometimes they practice against Andover’s MayaMay Brown, who is another beach standout.

Larkin said growing up in Kansas and trying to stand out in a coastal sport puts girls at a legitimate disadvantage.

“Competition was the biggest issue,” Larkin said. “We would have to go down to Dallas or Houston to make us better.”

With everything stacked against them, Shank said she would like to believe she hasn’t come close to reaching her potential because she doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to play. She said she still has a lot of questions about the sport.

“I’m really not burnt out on the sport at all because I never really get to play,” Shank said.

Courtesy of Ellie Shank

Larkin and Shank said it’s unlikely they will continue to be partners at LSU. They are defenders. Every team is made up of one defender and one blocker.

The possibility still exists. They have several years of experience, an asset few other college volleyball teammates have.

Last year, LSU went 31-8, including 13-0 at home. The Tigers finished third in the country at the NCAA Tournament in Gulf Shores, Alabama. It was LSU’s highest finish ever, and Shank and Larkin were there.

Larkin will play indoor and beach volleyball at LSU, but first she will complete her high school career in 2020. She will wrap up her third high school season this weekend in Salina at the Class 5A state tournament.

Carroll beat City League rival Kapaun Mt. Carmel 25-23, 25-10 in its sub-state tournament. At state, Carroll will be paired with Kansas City powers St. James Academy, St. Thomas Aquinas and Spring Hill.

Last year, Carroll finished fourth at state. It was the first time a Wichita area team in Classes 6A or 5A had beaten a Kansas City area team to reach the second day in 54 tries.

Larkin said the Golden Eagles have been together after school every day for the past week to hit peak chemistry.

“This is the time to play our best,” Larkin said. “That’s just what we’re focusing on, fixing the little things that can improve us overall.”

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Wichita Eagle preps reporter Hayden Barber brings the area updates on all high school sports while adding those hard-to-find human-interest stories on Wichita’s student-athletes.