Breaking new ground: Sam Hodges
Meet Sam Hodges. At 6 feet 8 inches (205cm) he’s hard to miss.
He’s also the first Southlander to represent New Zealand in indoor volleyball - ever, at any level.
The Year 12 Central Southland College pupil and Academy Southland member has just returned from Iran where he was part of a New Zealand under 18 team which finished 14th of the 18 teams on show at the Asian championships.
They didn’t win a game - except for a no-show victory against Turkmenistan - but they were competitive throughout; and while that might not mean much to the uninitiated, the barely-air conditioned courts used for the six-day tournament didn’t really offer a level playing field.
Outside of Australasia, volleyball is a very big deal and even at under 18 level players are receiving significant financial support to aid their development. Teams had spent months together preparing for the event.
The New Zealand team was self-funded and had spent four days together in April, and then had a couple of training sessions in the lead up to the tournament.
“They were getting paid to play and we had to find our own funds. For the past six months they would have six hour training sessions,” Hodges said.
The tournament itself was a massive learning experience for Hodges, on a number of levels.
While there had been safety concerns about travelling to Iran, Hodges said the team, which had a police escort, felt safe throughout,
Another issue raised before the tournament began was the fact the New Zealand team would be coached by a woman, Leanne Turrell, in a country where a British Iranian woman was arrested four years ago just for attending a men’s game.
“Previously they hadn’t allowed women into the stadiums, but they weren’t allowed to host the tournament unless women were allowed in,” Hodges said.
“When we went in the women were segregated on one side of the stadium. There were heaps of women spectators for the Iran games.”
You would like to think that Hodges has a bright future in volleyball; he was named New Zealand’s player of the day in a number of their games in Iran, but it’s not as simple as that.
You won’t be able to get the 17-year-old to admit this, but he is - quite literally - head and shoulders above any other volleyballer in the province, which makes it difficult to get the sort of competition and training which would extend or challenge him.
There is the potential for a college scholarship in the United States, something Hodges’ school coach Alyssa Johnstone has been exploring, but a lack of opportunities locally, and even nationally, makes progression awkward.
Not surprisingly, other sports would like to coax him away from the volleyball court.
On his flight from Invercargill to Christchurch, on the way to Iran, Hodges shared a plane with Southland Sharks coach Judd Flavell.
A Southland under 19 basketball representative, Hodges is on Flavell’s radar.
“He got my number and wants to have a meeting with me and my parents, so that was pretty cool. I played in the Sharks summer league and that was really cool. I was in the Southland under 19 team but couldn’t commit to any of the tournaments because I didn’t want to risk injury before the Asian championships.”
Hodges loves volleyball, especially when he gets to test himself against the best, but those opportunities in volleyball are rare compared with other sports.
For instance, US college scouts will attend the New Zealand schools tournament, but only those schools with the quality and funding available to attend get that chance to put their best players on that stage.
For Volleyball Southland, having one of their own shining in a black singlet is a big moment, but manager Alissa Light is also realistic about the challenges Hodges faces.
“I can definitely say that Sam has earned his shirt. Lots of credit needs to go to him, his coach at Central Southland and (former Volleyball Southland coach) Alex Mariano. Sam threw himself into his training all summer, often training by himself,” she said.
“Sam is so humble, he would never tell you that he got a player of the day award. Bay-leigh Johnson represented New Zealand in beach volleyball, but Sam is the first black singlet for indoor that’s ever come out of Southland. We are really proud of how far he has come.”