Shake the Melnick family tree and out falls a bevy of high-calibre volleyball players.
Found in the highest branches is mother, Dale Ann Melnick, who won two Southeastern Conference championships as a scholarship player at the University of Georgia, and followed it up with three Ontario University Athletic crowns at York University.
The first to follow Dale Ann, who coached with the junior national team for six years and was head coach of Canada’s Youth team that won a silver medal at NORCECA 2018 to qualify for worlds for the first time in 30 years, was oldest son Dallas. He was rookie of the year with the Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association champion St. Thomas Tommies, and features a spin serve clocked in excess of 100 km/h.
Youngest son Parker has just started on his travel volleyball journey, but 17-year-old daughter Grace has already risen to incredible heights. The Grade 12 student at A.N. Myer recently spent September to December in Richmond, B.C. training with Volleyball Canada’s National Excellence Program, and this fall will head to University of North Carolina Wilmington to play NCAA Division 1 volleyball.
The Melnick family live off Tanbark Road in St. Davids, in a house they built six years ago, having moved just down the road to the village from Niagara Falls.
When the kids were younger, they pretty much grew up at the St. Davids pool, says Dale Ann. Parker played baseball in Virgil and loved every bit of the community, she says, and they all love spending their days cycling throughout St. Davids and into Queenston, enjoying the last few miles of Laura Secord and Sir Isaac Brock’s charge.
Grace attended LaMarsh French Elementary School in Niagara Falls, and then went on to A. N. Myer Secondary School for its immersion program.
Mom is extremely proud of all of her kids, especially her daughter.
“To see my daughter earn that Volleyball Canada jacket was simply awesome,” Dale Ann said. “It far outweighs anything I have done, for sure.”
Despite her roots as a player and coach, the former head coach of the Brock women’s team never pushed her kids into the sport.
“We all started playing at 14U (14 and under) because my mom wanted us to experience other sports on our own,” Grace said. “She didn’t want to force us into playing volleyball. She wanted to ensure that it was something that we really wanted to do. We all fell in love with it and now we are all playing.”
The 6-foot-1 middle started playing club volleyball with the Niagara Rapids 14 and under team.
“It was a great introduction to volleyball, but I realized I wanted to take my skills to the next level, so I switched to the Defensa Volleyball Club (in Burlington) the next year.”
The following summer she was invited to the Team Ontario high performance camp.
“That was my first time there and I realized I really wanted to be a part of Team Ontario.”
The following year, she made both the Team Ontario volleyball and beach volleyball squads, making the beach squad as an under-ager.
“That was reaally exciting, because I got to compete the whole summer for Team Ontario, and I got to go to the Canada Cup in Halifax with the indoor team and we won a silver medal.”
Training with Volleyball Canada’s National Excellence Program was the next step in Grace’s progression.
“It was so amazing, and I am so grateful that I was able to be there and just compete with some of the best players across the country and train with the national team coaches,” she said. “I learned a lot, and I improved so much technically and tactically. I loved every minute of being out there.”
While in B.C., she signed her letter of intent with UNCW on Nov. 11.
“My homestay (billet) had a banner, and kind of a little party set up for me, which was really great,” Grace said. “It would have been nice to have my family there, but I had their support over Facetime.”
It was an emotional moment when she signed on the dotted line.
“There was lots of excitement going through my head, because I have been thinking about this day since Grade 9 when I decided I wanted to go to the U.S. It was crazy to think that the day had finally come, and I was officially signed to a school,” she said. “It was almost like a lot of weight taken off my shoulders too, because my decision was written on paper and it was happening for real.”
She started the recruiting process by looking at about 20 schools in Canada and the U.S. before whittling it down to a short list that included University of North Carolina Wilmington, Louisiana Tech, Campbell, Arkansas and Dalhousie.
Unfortunately, the pandemic meant she was unable to visit any of the schools in person, and had to learn about the schools and programs through virtual visits.
University of North Carolina Wilmington quickly became the frontrunner.
“I just kind of felt it in my gut that UNCW was the best school for me location-wise, because it is right on the beach and it’s a little bit closer to home than all the other schools. I am able to play beach and indoor there too, which is a dream come true. I was thinking about just going beach, but then I realized I wanted to play indoor more. The fact that I get to play both is really exciting for me.”
She will likely be heading to North Carolina in late July or early August.
“I am definitely hoping things will clear up a little by then. I am aware that the (COVID) cases are a little higher over there, but I know my coach is doing everything she can to make sure the team is staying safe. I am sure I will be OK.”
The future exercise science major, who is thinking about becoming a physiotherapist or chiropractor, has set above-the-net goals for herself.
“I am hoping to go there and be an impact player for the team. I am going to go in the best possible shape that I can, continue to learn, and fight to get a spot on the court.”
She can’t wait to get started. “It’s getting that D1 experience, and the competitive culture by competing against some of the best teams.”
UNCW head coach Dottie Hampton was thrilled to land her.
“Grace is a double threat, where she is a high level indoor and beach player from Canada,” she said. “She will bring those talents to both the VolleyHawks and SandyHawks programs here at UNCW. Her versatility on the court and the sand makes her valuable to our program.”
Bernie Puchalski is an award-winning journalist who worked for Niagara dailies for more than 27 years, as a news reporter, sports reporter and sports editor. Through BP Sports Niagara, he now provides people-focused, grassroots coverage of local sports.