Thursday, September 7th, 2017
Wendel a pioneer in area men's volleyball
By Robb Hemmelgarn
As the decades pass in the Mercer and Auglaize counties' area, there is little doubt how athletics continue to flourish at the high school level year in and year out.
While local teams continue to pile up state championships and produce future college standouts, a couple of aspects of our area's athletic heritage have slowly gone by the way side.
For Mercer County native Verne Wendel, one of those pieces of his past that has methodically dwindled are the church volleyball leagues.
"There used to be a time in our area where every small church had a volleyball court nestled nearby," said Wendel, a former volleyball superstar who grew up between Rockford and Celina. "In the late 1950s and through the 1960s, there were as many as 130 teams in Mercer County alone. There are still a few teams out there, but it is nothing like it was when I was growing up."
Wendel got his first taste of the sport before he was a teenager, playing all across the county several times a week, a worthwhile escape for him as a youngster, especially when life dealt some difficult blows. When his mother passed away at the age of 32 in 1954, his family, which included six siblings, was turned upside down. He attended school in his early years at Celina and later in Rockford, but in 1959 he and his brothers and sisters were sent to live at the Marsh Foundation in Van Wert.
"We were only allowed to play one sport while we were there, so I played basketball for a year and then ran track for a couple of years, but neither of them really interested me like volleyball did," Wendel said. "I wasn't a real strong basketball player, and although I was a decent runner, I didn't really enjoy it all that much. One thing I could really do well was jump, so that definitely helped me to excel on the volleyball court."
When it was time for Wendel to head to college, he wound up at the Ohio State University in Columbus in 1962 and soon realized his extra-curricular calling.
"They were starting a club volleyball team for men during my first year, and there was an open invitation for players to try out and I ended up making the team," Wendel said. "They played a completely different style by running a 6-0 offense, and although that was something I had never really done before, I was able to adjust rather quickly."
Although it was a club team, Wendel was quick to point out that the competition they faced on a regular basis was quite fierce.
"We played all over the Midwest against schools like Michigan State, Bowling Green, Ball State, and Kentucky," Wendel said. "We were playing against those colleges' varsity teams and still probably managed to win 70 percent of our games. It was definitely hard work, but it was a lot of fun."
Following college, Wendel did a stint in the military before returning to the area and bringing a new style of the sport he loved back with him.
"The church leagues around here were at their peak by the time I returned and they definitely weren't used to the 6-0 style of offense," Wendel said with a chuckle. "I ended up also getting involved with the YMCA in Van Wert and we started a league there as well. Volleyball was still a huge part of my life and I wanted to continue to see it grow in our area."
Wendel's career on the courts lasted until he was 50 years old before he finally gave it up for good, but unfortunately he witnessed the sport, which was so big for so long, start to falter later in his career.
"I'm not really sure what caused it all to slow down so much," said Wendel with a twinge of disappointment in his voice. "I suppose those who were always big in organizing it, stopped doing so and there was just no one around to pick things up and keep it going."
Although he is no longer a competitor, Wendel still keeps busy today watching his grandkids play sports, and even though none of them play volleyball, that doesn't keep him from the excitement of watching them compete.
"Just about all of them play soccer," Wendel said. "Even though there aren't any volleyball players in the family, it is still so neat to watch them do something they love. A few times a year, I run into old friends whom I haven't seen in decades and they bring up the stories of the days from when we used to play volleyball. There are a lot of great memories for me and looking back, I had a very good life with it and honestly that is all you can ask."