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Long rallies, passionate fans: Valkyries bring pro volleyball to Orlando

Members of the Orlando Valkyries volleyball team gather around head coach Amy Pauly during a time out.
Joe Byrnes
Orlando Valkyries head coach Amy Pauly gathers the team for a time out.

Orlando has a new professional women’s sports team, the Valkyries, competing in the newly created Pro Volleyball Federation.

The team lost its very match Friday night -- against the Atlanta Vibe -- but it won the hearts of a boisterous crowd of 5,284 at Addition Financial Arena on the University of Central Florida campus.

Young families were there, and a lot of girls from Central Florida’s club teams were holding signs and following the long rallies with close attention.

There was a drum line, a kiss cam and a hype squad that drove fans to a frenzy with t-shirts and miniature volleyballs. The match itself was thrilling enough as it see-sawed back and forth. That’s until the Valkyries fell by three points in the fifth set.

"There was never a dull moment," Valkyries head coach Amy Pauly said after the match. "And I know that our rallies kind of helped encourage that it's easy to cheer for that. … And it was very thrilling to kind of like feed off of all the excitement that was out there."

The brand new Pro Volleyball Federation has seven teams, with plans to add three more. They're a mix of veteran players with international experience and newly drafted college stars.

The PVF comes along as women's volleyball rides a wave of popularity. The American women won gold in the last Summer Olympics. And in August, an outdoor volleyball match at Nebraska set a record for attendance with 92,000.

Women's professional volleyball leagues have come and gone since at least the 1980s. And there are two others getting started in the U.S. -- League One Volleyball and Athletes United.

"Our assistant coach Molly Stark reminds me every day," Pauly said, "that this is not the first real pro volleyball league, but it is the most professional volleyball League. ... And I think the difference is now just the fan base has grown so much the popularity in the sport at the younger age."

This League was two years in the making. The Orlando Valkyries team is owned by Boca Raton businessman David Forman and managed by veteran sports marketer George Manias.

The Valkyries coaches and players have been together, training, for just a few weeks. The coach said their biggest strength so far is the team culture.

"[T]hey are all striving to just give their best effort," Pauly said. "And I think that makes for a really gritty team. We don't love the word grit in our gym, because it's a little cliche. So we say we got that dog in 'em, but … they play so hard."

Kaz Brown of the Orlando Valkyries prepares to serve during the team's first match, in Addition Financial Arena at the University of Central Florida Friday night.
Joe Byrnes
Kaz Brown of the Orlando Valkyries prepares to serve during the team's first match, in Addition Financial Arena at the University of Central Florida Friday night.

Until now, top college players -- like Valkyries starting middle blocker Kaz Brown -- had to go overseas if they wanted to compete as a professional.

"I played in Germany, Ukraine, France, and Greece," Brown said, "all of those countries and leagues, extremely different in their own right. But I took a lot from those experiences. I'm not gonna lie, it was really hard."

With the new league, newly drafted rookies can pursue a career at home.

"For the kids that are coming out of college now to have choices and to have opportunity, I mean, I think it's amazing," Brown said.

Valkyries head coach Amy Pauly sites with No. 19 Abby Hansen at a press event following the Valkyries first match.
Joe Byrnes
Orlando Valkyries head coach Amy Pauly and No. 19 Abby Hansen, a middle blocker who was drafted from the University of Central Florida, speak with members of the media following Friday night's match.

Before the match, 60-year-old Tanya Williams of Marion County said she was excited to watch the Valkyries. Williams used to play volleyball in college, and she's glad for "the younger generation."

"There's a lot of interest in volleyball," she said. "It hasn't gotten its due diligence as of yet, but I'm positive that it will be there as we continue to build up this type of program across the nation."

Another fan, sixth grader Lizzy Ryan, was outside the arena with six schoolmates and several parents from Annunciation Catholic Academy in Altamonte Springs. The team practices at the Top Select gym where Lizzy plays.

"[I]t's just a really big inspiration for, I think, every single girl who wants to be a volleyball player."

Joe Byrnes came to WMFE/WMFV from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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