RICHMOND, Va. – The early days of Janelle Sykes’ foray into serious volleyball didn’t exactly foretell a bright future.
The Clifton, Virginia native largely muddled through three years of volleyball at Trinity Christian School, and when she finally found her way into the development-friendly club program at NVVA in Sterling, Virginia, she didn’t come bounding out of the blocks.
On the first day of practice with NVVA’s 17-1s club, the 6-foot-3 Sykes dislocated her thumb blocking a ball during a scrimmage, in large part, she says, due to poor fundamentals. She didn’t get near the game floor again for weeks as she worked almost exclusively on footwork.
Today, five years removed from her underwhelming club debut, Sykes can call herself a professional volleyball player. Two weeks ago, the 2015 VCU graduate signed a one-year contract (with an mutual second-year option) with Azeryol Baku of Azerbaijan’s Super League.
Azerbaijan, which is located on the Caspian Sea, east of Turkey, isn’t widely known in the United States, and even Sykes admitted she had to locate the country on a map, but the country’s Super League is well-regarded in Europe. Sykes will depart later this summer.
“Right now I’m pretty excited,” Sykes, a middle blocker, said. “I’m sure as it gets closer, I’ll be more anxious about it.”
Sykes’ transformation from an awkward gym-class plodder to a professional volleyball player in five years is remarkable. She was a walk-on during her first two years at VCU. This season, she was named First Team All-Atlantic 10 and First Team All-State. She ranks sixth in school history in blocks (345).
The youngest of four siblings, Sykes grew up playing sports, namely basketball. But she never considered her future would be in volleyball. It wasn’t until a coach stopped her on the way to sign up for basketball tryouts that she entertained the thought.
“The 17-1s coach at NVVA, John Teifer, came up to me and said, ‘how would you like to play in college?’ I said that I’d love to play in college, but I never thought that was in the cards for me,” Sykes recalled. “I knew I wasn’t good in comparison, but he invited me to come to tryouts.”
Sykes expressed surprise her volleyball career didn’t end there.
“I went to the tryout. I was the worst one there. I should’ve have made the team by any means in comparison to the other girls,” she said. “But I got on the team and was doing footwork for the first two weeks.”
Sykes did eventually begin to harness her athletic ability, but not in time to draw much attention in recruiting. She walked on at VCU and largely spent the next two seasons on the end of the Rams’ bench. She played in just 42 of VCU’s 240 sets during her freshman and sophomore seasons.
Despite her role on the team, Sykes says she kept working and tried to remain optimistic.
“It taught me you have to persevere and that you have to internally motivate yourself on a daily basis. You have to put in the work in the weight room. You have to continually have that drive to push yourself and get out there. You might not get rewarded with playing time, but you have to trust that time is going to come, and in the end, it did, so it all paid off,” she said.
Sykes became a starter during Jody Rogers’ first season as head coach in 2013 and tied a school single-season record with 172 blocks. As a senior last season, she evolved into VCU’s most-reliable offensive threat, averaging 2.82 kills per set while hitting .330.
Although Sykes fortunes on the floor changed quickly, it did not happen by chance.
“This is all on her,” Rogers said. “Kudos to her for working her tail off and making the people around her great. It’s good for her that she’s got this opportunity, and we’re excited for her.”
“I gained more confidence this year,” said Sykes. “I think you really have to believe in yourself before you make such a big step as this one, and I think I started to believe in myself this past year.”
Sykes says she began considering a pro career midway through her senior season, and reached out to friends and former teammates for advice. Their message to her was clear.
“They just said how big of an opportunity this would be, and if you have that opportunity, you take it. Just how much of an amazing experience it would be. You have to try,” she said.
So, five years since she took a flyer on volleyball, Sykes is charging ahead into a phase few experience. She’s going to give volleyball another try. It worked out well the first time.