Thursday, July 25, 2013

ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: Former Harper Volleyball Star Thriving at Richmond-Burton HS

Chelcun loves coaching and being the school social worker at Richmond-Burton High School. (Laura Chelcun)
PALATINE, Ill. – Most athletes have a very difficult time accepting the fact that their playing careers are over. Former Harper volleyball player Laura Chelcun is no stranger to this reality, but she discovered a knack for coaching the game she loves.

Chelcun played for Harper in 2005 and served as an assistant volleyball coach at Harper from 2006 to 2011. After graduating from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2011 with a Master of School Social Work degree, she accepted a position as a social worker at Richmond-Burton Community High School in Richmond, Ill. and is now the assistant girls' varsity volleyball coach at the school.

Chelcun always had a passion for volleyball growing up. She was a Daily Herald high school All-Area player for Buffalo Grove High School who graduated in 2002.

She decided to continue her career at Div. III Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. After playing for a year at Carthage, her career was put in serious jeopardy.

During an open gym session with her teammates that next summer, Chelcun landed awkwardly and felt pain in her back. The pain worsened in the coming weeks until she was finally diagnosed with a fractured vertebrae. Chelcun was forced into a body cast for six weeks and wondered if she would ever play volleyball again.

She was unable to compete in the fall of 2003 due to the injury, but she hadn't given up hope that she could one day play again. Chelcun decided to leave Carthage and enroll at Harper College for the 2004-05 school year.

While she did not play the 2004 season for Harper, she was in contact with fellow Buffalo Grove graduate and volleyball player Amanda Palisi, who told her more about the Harper program. Chelcun contacted Harper head coach Bob Vilsoet and came out for the team in the fall of 2005.

That season, the Hawks went 36-16, captured the N4C regular season title and were NJCAA Div. III District B Champions. Finally, the Hawks won the Div. III Regional Tournament and made it to the NJCAA National Tournament, where they placed fourth in the nation.

"If I could go back and do it all over again, I would go back to 2005. It was one of the best years of my life," Chelcun said. "Going to nationals was so much fun. I was so close to my teammates, and those girls are still in my life to this day."

Chelcun calls herself 'Harper's biggest advocate' because of the positive atmosphere she always felt at Harper. She said the support from other athletic teams at the college was unlike anything she expected.

"We were so close with other teams. We always had other Harper teams supporting us in the stands, and we supported them at their games, too," she said. "Our volleyball team even made friends with CLC (College of Lake County) that I still talk to today."

That season, you wouldn't have known Chelcun had ever suffered a serious injury, as the 5-foot-10 outside hitter dominated opponents. She was one of three Hawks named All-Americans. Chelcun also received First Team All-Region, First Team All-Conference, All-Region Tournament Team and three-time All-Tournament Team distinctions in 2005. Finally, she was named co-MVP of Harper's team along with Laurenn Baker.

Her 525 kills, which still ranks third in Harper College single season records, and 1297 attacks were first in the NJCAA and N4C, while her 596 digs and 3.5 kills/game ranked third and 21st in the NJCAA, respectively.

From an academics standpoint, Chelcun felt Harper made it easy with such a large selection of classes at varying times. She also felt the classes helped prepare her for her success in getting her bachelor's degree and master's degree in the coming years.

Chelcun had a chance to walk on and try out for the volleyball team at Northern Illinois University (NIU), but she opted to focus on her undergraduate program there from 2006 to 2008. While she was commuting to NIU, she decided she wanted to try coaching, so she became an assistant coach at Harper under Bob Vilsoet.

While she acknowledged the transition from player to coach is very difficult, she began to learn the nuances of the sport from Vilsoet, who she said brings a wealth of knowledge to the table.

"He teaches you the smarts of the game and how to play it right," she said. "He has a whole other perspective to the game that I've never seen with other coaches."

Chelcun also said Vilsoet has taught her how to talk to players, how to give them a second chance, how to be patient and what to look for in athletes. Most importantly, she said Vilsoet is a master at managing a team and focusing on what will make each player on the team better.

Chelcun graduated from NIU with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Family and Child Studies in May of 2008. She continued coaching the following season and began her master's program in the fall of 2009 at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) while remaining an assistant coach for the Hawks. While she was very busy completing her degree, she could still coach because Vilsoet delegated her roles and gave her a purpose.

Chelcun graduated with her Master of School Social Work from UIC in the spring of 2011. It was at that point that she began to search for her jobs in her field. After applying and interviewing at a number of schools, she was offered a job and accepted a position at Richmond-Burton Community High School to be the school's social worker.

"Laura is a great example of how Harper College is a terrific starting point for many students and student-athletes," her former coach Bob Vilsoet said.

With just over 800 students enrolled at the school, Chelcun fell in love with the small-town feel. As a social worker, her job is to promote the growth of social and emotional learning among students. She helps support students who have social or emotional challenges that interfere with their academic success.

"I love my job because every day brings a different challenge," she said. "I get to use my knowledge and creativity to help students be more successful. What's more rewarding than that?"

In her first year at Richmond-Burton (2011-12), she commuted to the school from West Dundee and also commuted to Harper because she was still an assistant coach for the Hawks.

The following summer, she got engaged to her fiancé Pete Karamitos, a special education teacher, football coach and basketball coach at Buffalo Grove High School. The couple moved into a home in Cary, lessening the distance she had to travel each day.

In her second year at the school (2012-13), she became the Rockets' head sophomore volleyball coach. While she would no longer be a coach for the Hawks, she knew this was a prime opportunity to coach and continue her career as a social worker. The school became home for her.

This upcoming fall, Chelcun has been promoted to assistant varsity coach and will serve as the acting head coach in late September once the current head coach goes on maternity leave. The Rockets went 37-5 in 2012 and finished runner-up in the IHSA Class 3A girls' volleyball state tournament.

With senior Ali Frantti, a Penn State recruit, leading the charge, the Rockets will be strong contenders for the title again in 2013 with Chelcun calling the shots.

"The players at Richmond-Burton High School are lucky to have her as their coach this coming year," Vilsoet said. "I'm actually predicting a state championship for RBHS this year."

Despite her emergence as an up-and-coming volleyball coach, Chelcun said she keeps her career as the top priority.

"My job as a social worker takes priority over volleyball," she said. "I'm in a tough role, and if there's a crisis, I need to take care of that above all else."

That's exactly why she is content in her role as an assistant coach for the time being.

Looking back on her Harper playing and coaching experiences, Chelcun is grateful for the relationships she built and offered advice to potential future Hawk athletes.

"Just think about why you do what you do. No matter where you are, have a great attitude in that situation and you will grow individually as a player," she said. 

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