Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Dec. 8, 2021

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Prairie grad Irwin takes her volleyball career to Europe

Former WSU setter lands spot on Austrian team

By , Columbian Sports Copy Editor and Writer
3 Photos
Camryn Irwin, Washington State University volleyball.
Camryn Irwin, Washington State University volleyball. Photo Gallery

Camryn Irwin has been planning this for a long time.

Before playing four seasons in one of the best volleyball conferences in NCAA Division I, before her all-state playing days at Prairie High School and even before youth club play, she was a 6-year-old with a question for her mother.

“I guess I asked her if there was a job that you can do where you just play sports; that’s all you do — just play sports,” Irwin said, relating a conversation the two recently had about the memory. “We kind of joke about that. As I got older, it still remained a goal. There are definitely other things I want in the future — other dreams and goals — but for now, this is exactly what I want to be doing.”

The dream of professional sports has taken Irwin to Europe, where the 5-foot-11 setter now plays for ASKÖ Linz-Steg of the Austrian League, the Österreichischer Volleyballverband.

Playing professional volleyball overseas is “definitely not common” as a path for post-collegiate American players, Irwin said. It is, however, the only option to continue a career in indoor court volleyball outside of the national team. Most of the 30 or so players in the national team pool also play professionally in foreign leagues.

“A lot of girls, after they’re done playing college volleyball, are just burned out and exhausted and ready to move on to the next thing,” Irwin said. “But for me, I was still healthy and I love playing, so it was definitely something I wanted to keep pursuing.”

Irwin raked in all-league and all-state honors in her four years at Prairie, her senior season capped by a second consecutive Class 3A All-State selection and being named the Class 3A Greater St. Helens League Player of the Year and The Columbian’s All-Region Volleyball Player of the Year.

After a freshman season at the University of Oregon, Irwin transferred to Washington State. In three seasons at WSU, two as a starter, she finished fourth on the school’s all-time assists list and was one service ace short of WSU’s career Top 10.

“I look back and I think about how many things I’ve learned in the past four years, whether it be at University of Oregon or at Washington State,” Irwin said. “Absolutely, what I wanted out of my college volleyball career was to become not only a better athlete, but a better person, regardless of the win-loss column, and that is something I definitely achieved. I’m a better volleyball player, a better athlete and a better person.”

End of senior season, of course, is the end of the line for most athletes in every sport.

Irwin did not want to stop.

She describes what followed as a whirlwind.

European adventure

Irwin discussed how to continue playing with WSU coach Jen Greeny. Greeny put her in contact with the firm Bring It Promotions, which teamed with apparel company Smack Sportswear to field a team of post-collegiate American players called Smack BIP USA.

The team played in a televised Jan. 3-5 tournament in Italy featuring top teams from the Italian and German leagues, plus Italy’s U-23 national team.

From there, she joined the 14th annual January European Exposure Tour in Milan. Linz coach Rogelio Hernandez was there, looking to fill three roster spots after some players departed the team.

“I was there for about 16 hours, and there was a coach who needed a setter,” Irwin said. “I went to Austria that night and tried out for the team for the next day and a half or two days, and they offered me a contract.”

Two other Americans were also picked up at the event, joining another already on the roster at Linz, a city of about 200,000 near where Austria meets the Czech Republic and Germany.

The Austrian league is unlike many European leagues in most sports that limit how many foreign players are allowed on the roster. Even so, Irwin said, it is still unusual to have four Americans on the same roster.

Hernandez is Cuban/Italian and not a native German speaker, there are four Americans on the team and the Austrians speak some English.

As a result, Irwin — who earlier this month could speak no German — is coached in English.

While that is a significant help, Irwin said she and her American compatriots are working on fitting in.

“I’m actually a little excited because after three weeks, I’m now able to have a small conversation at a checkout stand or something,” she said. “I can say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and, ‘How much?’ You can kind of get away with little things.

“We’re starting to joke about how we’re blending in because people come up to you and start speaking German, and it’s like, ‘I don’t know what to do!’ When we first got here, it was so blatantly obvious that we’re not from here that people would look at us and start talking in English.”

Court report

Linz plays simultaneously in both the Austrian league and the Middle European Zone Championships against top teams from Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia.

After four years in one of the top conferences in all of U.S. college volleyball, Irwin said the level of play is “not so much” tougher in general. But it is a high level of play and her team has faced Olympians and national team members.

“We’re playing some really good players, but it’s very similar, to be honest,” she said.

Linz is one of the best teams in its domestic league, Irwin said, but is currently at the bottom of the eight-team MEVZA standings.

That has improved recently with the team’s new additions, however. The team lost again in its most recent zone match, and it was a three-set sweep. But the first two were highly competitive in Saturday’s 26-24, 25-23, 25-11 loss to the Slovenian team Nova KBM Branik Maribor.

“We’re progressively getting better,” Irwin said. “We actually just played the No. 1 team in the league on Saturday and played them super, super tight. We’re getting better.”

Irwin played in front of bigger crowds at many Pacific-12 Conference matches than she does at Linz, with typical home attendance of about 200. The arena hosting the Austrian playoffs seats about 5,000 and is typically well attended, she said.

Accustomed to sometimes rowdy student sections and pep bands playing at matches, Irwin said the atmosphere in Europe is similar, but different. Unlike at college matches, crowds at professional matches can be drinking alcohol, and often bang on drums while points are being played.

“It took a couple of games to get used to those things,” she said. “It’s definitely a little different.”

Fans on ice

The team is starting to draw more fans as it improves with a boost from the influx of new players, Irwin said.

While it has not quite made them celebrities around the city — although Irwin said that people “kind of know that we have to be athletes” on sight — they are also getting more notice because of a developing bond the players have with the other professional athletes in town who are.

Players from Linz’s popular hockey team — many of whom are Americans or Canadians — have become friends of the volleyball players.

“They’re a pretty big deal around here,” Irwin said. “We ran into one of the Americans on the team and he was giving us a hard time and whatnot, so we made some friends with the hockey players.

“They’re definitely celebrities around town. People notice them, and that’s been a lot of fun because we get to hang out with them. They’ve become our good friends, and they’ve started coming to our games, which makes it a big deal that these hockey players come to our games.”

Looking ahead

Even though she is on the other side of the world and without a phone, which she describes with a laugh as “kind of a challenge,” Irwin is able to stay in touch with family and friends back in the United States through services like Skype, Facebook and Twitter.

“I feel the support from home,” she said. “It’s been quite a blessing, to be honest. People ask me questions and they’re excited for me. I feel that presence from home. I definitely have a lot of support.”

Irwin was a midseason pickup for a team that plays a season that runs from August through May, with a holiday break.

A two-time Pac-12 All-Academic selection with a 3.88 cumulative grade point average, she plans to return to Pullman to complete her degree in journalism and media production in the fall. After that, she wants to find a place on a team in January, then see where life takes her from there.

She plans to continue doing media work for WSU athletics while completing her degree, and would like to be able to combine work in her field with playing to remain on a career path for after volleyball ends for her.

Team officials just asked her Tuesday about creating a documentary on the team, she said, which is exactly the sort of work she wants to put on a résumé while continuing to play for as long as she can.

“We’ll just see where it leads,” Irwin said. “I think it would be kind of silly to make a plan, because Lord knows He likes to change them.”

Columbian Sports Copy Editor and Writer