In the summer between grade seven and eight, Little Current Public School senior Sydney Koehler would travel to Sudbury, attending the Kabuum Volleyball Camp, hosted annually by coach Dale Beausoleil and friends.
"I definitely wasn't very good at all, but I decided I wanted to get better," she said.
Some six years later, the 18 year-old long-time resident of Manitoulin Island must venture just a little further from home, tackling the next step in her volleyball career as a member of the Nipissing Lakers come September.
Koelher will join Northern Chill Volleyball Club teammate Amy Connelly, enrolling in the Concurrent Education program in North Bay, anxious to start the next phase of a journey that started, in earnest, when she and her family committed to dealing with the geographic realities of OVA (Ontario Volleyball Association) competition in the north.
"I was in the foyer at Cambrian, during Kabuum, and there were these older girls that played club, and they were telling me about the Chill, about tryouts coming up in the fall," said Koehler. "They said if I wanted to get better, I should definitely go for it."
"I remember seeing all of the other girls at tryouts and thinking that I wasn't the strongest player there."
Coach Eric Bacon, however, saw something in his young prospect. And to their credit, the Koehler clan accepted the inevitable inconveniences. "I wasn't aware of this until later, but Mr Bacon asked my mom, at the last night of tryouts, if she was ready for the commitment that it's going to take."
"We had to be in Sudbury, three times a week, plus an out of town tournament, every month. We made a lot of adjustments for rides, to make sure we were on time. It really helped, in my second year playing, when another islander joined the team (Ryann Hudson)."
"We car-pooled every week, and when we were older, we drove with each other."
At about the same time, Koelher was becoming increasingly aware of a fondness for volleyball that was different than the various other sports she had experienced before-hand: horse riding, hockey, soccer, cross-country among them.
"I think it was the sport for me because I realized that I had the potential to keep going with it, to keep growing and getting better," she said. "I really loved the team aspect of it, just the excitement of the game."
"It was finally something that I could really excel at and get excited about," she added. "It fit with my body type, tall and lanky. It took me a while to adjust, but once I got the muscle memory down, I found myself pretty effective at the net."
Even still, the notion of playing beyond high-school took root very gradually, spurred on by a pair of significant events the past two years. "The coach from Georgian (College) approached me, at a tournament, a couple of years ago," said Koehler.
"For me, that was definitely the first tipping point, helping me to believe that I had the potential to play after high-school. And then this year, with the Chill, I played with a very competitive team. They had a really strong drive to succeed, and I think that brought out a part of me that wanted to be even better."
In fact, a renewed sense of motivation would move Koehler to add a little more versatility to her game, positionally speaking. "Most of my volleyball career, I have played out of the right side, and I've not really been involved in serve receive."
"I talked to my coaches this year about getting some experience. I wanted to focus more on my passing skills and become a better all-around player. I guess that's good for a university to see - they don't want to see you do just one thing."
The drawbacks of the current pandemic, in the world of amateur sports, have been well-documented. That said, there are precious moments of anticipation, as Koehler and Connelly were recently introduced to their new teammates via a Zoom meeting, a forum they plan to utilize on a weekly basis, beginning to build team chemistry.
Workouts are forwarded from the team's personal trainer. Mindset and nutrition coaches share information. Koehler eyes her freshman campaign, so many questions still to be answered. "Honestly, I'm not too sure what my position will be at Nipissing," she said.
"I'm guessing either left-side or right-side. I love being at the net, I love hitting, for sure."
And while she loves her home in Little Current, and summers on Manitoulin Island, Sydney Koehler is ready to expand the scope of her world, just a little bit more.