All it took was an outgoing email — and a lot of perseverance — for Ashley Evans to eventually get her foot in the door.
The 2013 Lakota East High School graduate didn’t have professional volleyball on the mind during her prep days, but the interest grew.
So did her persistence.
“The answer is always going to be ‘no’ if you never ask, right?” Evans said. “I’ve tried to live my life by that principle. You have to put yourself out there and take a chance and be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
Evans went on to redshirt at Purdue University, where she was a standout volleyball player earning a degree in engineering.
There, she became comfortable with the uncomfortable.
“Then it just hit me,” Evans said. “During the last two years of my collegiate career, I decided I really wanted to play professionally.”
Evans was part of the High Performance Pipeline — now the National Team Development Program — as a youth and collegiate player, earning invitations to USA camps, training teams and collegiate national teams.
Those experiences within the USA ranks are what sparked her desire to play overseas after graduating.
“That’s when I realized I wanted to be a professional volleyball player overseas — because until now actually — January 2024 to be exact, we could only go overseas and play,” Evans said. “I wanted to see how far we could take it and focus on being a professional athlete post-college for a few years.”
Goals were set, and the mission was on.
After college, Evans planned to seek out an invitation to USA’s national team training gym in Anaheim, Calif., but it transitioned into her first pro experience playing in Spain from the fall of 2018 to spring of 2019.
Evans later made a national team roster in August of 2019.
“That was how it sort of all began,” she said. “That roster needed a setter for a short, 10-day training and competition period.
“I made sure I was ready.”
HIGH SCHOOL DAYS
Evans was an outside hitter at Lakota East and didn’t do much setting.
She was an all-around player, though, on one of the best programs the school had ever put on the volleyball court.
The Thunderhawks reached the Elite 8 her senior season, so winning was already a part of her resumé.
“I really would not be where I am today without my experience at East,” Evans said.
She namedropped Casie Garland, Suzy Lippert and Emily Langan — her Lakota East coaches — because of the way they mentored her.
Evans keeps in touch with them to this day.
“I think being the type of player that I was, it didn’t allow me to get burnt out,” she said. “It gave me a fabulous foundation to be a volleyball player instead of being a specialized athlete.
“I credit that to my coaches for not specializing me at such a young age.”
She said that’s ultimately what got her into Purdue.
“As far as I know, I think my all-American banner is still hanging in the East gym,” said Evans, who believes she is the only Lakota East volleyball player to be recognized as both an Under Armour High School All-American and an American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American at Purdue.
“I’ve always wanted to be seen as a player who puts others ahead of myself. I think this is when people started to see that.”
TAKING THE INITIATIVE
Evans earned multiple first-team and all-academic honors at Purdue, which led to her opportunity to play overseas in the fall of 2018.
After reading an inspirational article from a now-retired USA volleyball Olympian, it was then she discovered a possible outlet to the national team.
“Coach Karch is quoted saying that he receives a lot of emails and notes every summer from athletes wanting to be in the gym,” Evans said. “But they only have so many spots, of course.
“I read that, and I thought, ‘I can do that same thing.’”
Evans said her and Kiraly had met a few times before when she played on the USA collegiate national team.
“I think he remembered who I was … maybe,” Evans laughed. “I had been involved with so many organizations, and the national team pipeline was certainly something that wasn’t new to me.
“So I sent him that email in the winter of 2018 while overseas.”Evans admitted she was in the mix with getting national attention but wasn’t a top 20 player coming out of college.
“I didn’t get looked at as highly touted for me to be in the national team gym,” she confessed.
“I had to take it upon myself to put my foot out there and hopefully earn an invite.”
But Evans never got a reply from Kiraly. So she sent him another email.
Her first one, she found out, went to Kiraly’s spam folder.
“He was very apologetic about it,” Evans recalled. “He responded back and was very appreciative of me putting myself out there and showing interest.
“He was honest and said there was no room that summer, but what they could do was keep in touch, give feedback through videos and let me know if other opportunities arise in the near future.”
Evans went back to Purdue that summer.
Kiraly then emailed her again — this time offering an opportunity.
“They were looking for a setter during a short training block and for a tournament and was wondering if I would be interested,” Evans said.
“Who knows,” she added. “Had I never sent that original message, I don’t think I would ever be where I am today.
“That was the first step. So I think the most important step was to get my foot in the door and be proactive and take the initiative.
“Because, you just never know.”
What Evans did know is that she could play. She could play with the best of them.
The 6-foot-1 Evans got to compete for USA that summer after her first season abroad in 2019, in a regional tournament in Colorado Springs during an international offseason — which she called “a neat experience.”
Evans went back overseas to play, and then COVID hit. That shut down everything — including Evans’ prominent push toward advancing on the national stage.“
Olympics were in the future. That was next up,” she said. “But I knew I wasn’t going to be in the mix for that, by any means.
“The Olympics get moved to 2021, and I go back overseas for the 2020-2021 season.”
By the time Evans finished that year’s stint, she was in Germany.
“I went back to Karch again and asked him if there was any space for me to get into the gym,” Evans said. “That summer, I hoped that it would be possible for me to come train with our Olympic crew before they go out.”
Evans knew USA’s three setters were still overseas playing their respective seasons and making deep postseason pushes.
“I figured they weren’t able to come back until much later in the spring, and I was done much earlier,” she said. “So I took it upon myself to look at it this way — I didn’t think these three women would be back for a while, and they may need someone to come and help.
“Coach Kiraly immediately said, ‘Yes. We need someone. You were actually on the top of my list. I was going to reach out to you,’” Evans added.
“So back to being the proactive one.”
Evans was invited to the national team gym out in Anaheim for roughly two months in the spring of 2021. She trained with the national team until it competed in Volleyball Nations League (VNL), an annual international competition.
Evans went home while the USA women’s volleyball team participated in the Olympics in Tokyo, where the program won its first Olympic gold medal.
She was invited back in August of 2021 for a smaller regional tournament, the NORCECA Continental Championships in Mexico.
“I guess it’s very natural as a highly-motivated athlete that when you get a taste of it, you want to contribute more,” Evans said. “As soon as you get one invitation, and you earn a roster spot, you want to compete for more.”
Evans would get more.
‘HOLDING ON TO THE HANDLEBARS’
Going into the 2021-2022 professional season overseas, Evans sought after another goal — to officially be a member of the USA training roster.
The national women’s volleyball team could take anywhere between 25 to 35 players for the VNL training roster each summer, according to Evans, but only travel 14 of them each competition week.
Evans didn’t get the spot she was hoping for.
“It happens. You’re not always going to get the golden ticket,” she said. “To not make a roster is definitely hard, but knowing it’s been two steps forward and just one step back — it’s reassuring.”
Evans, in turn, wanted to continue to stay relevant heading into the 2022 summer.
“There are so many different tournaments over the course of one summer that they’re not going to send one exact roster to every location,” she said.
The Pan-American Cup (PAC) and the Pan-American Cup Final Six were just a couple of those tournaments. Evans made both rosters and helped USA take the bronze in the PAC.
But Evans was immediately dealt with an unfortunate surprise following the PAC.
“COVID regulations were still in place for some of these tournaments, and we were required to test,” she said. “I tested positive while we were at home three or four days between tournaments. My roommate and I had it, but I was completely asymptomatic. It was gut wrenching.”
Evans was forced to miss the Pan-Am Cup Final Six tournament.“
Being this is my career and doing what I do because I want to wear the red, white and blue, to have that taken away from you in a split second is really hard to swallow,” Evans elaborated. “But it put in perspective for me how sort of tightly I was holding on to the handlebars.
“I was letting it define me. It’s really hard to draw a line between volleyball with what you do and how it defines you. Volleyball is what I do and not who I am. It’s how I make my living currently. But it can sometimes be hard for me to make sure that it’s not my identity.
“I needed to find myself more outside of the court. So I did not go to that tournament, I recovered and went home.”
Evans began to prepare for her next professional season overseas in Germany.
When Evans’ German season concluded in the spring of 2023, she earned an official invitation from Karch to be a part of the VNL training roster — a 30-player long list from which 14 women travel to four stints of competition over the course of a month and a half.
“This had been my goal for the last year,” Evans said. “And I was honored to reach such a milestone and contribute to USA in any way, shape or form.”
Evans soon found out that she earned a travel roster spot to the first two weeks of competition in Turkey and Brazil, respectively, which played a role in motivating her to earn the next opportunity.
That was a spot amongst the 20-player training roster for the Olympic Qualifier tournament in Poland at the end of the summer.
“I ultimately earned that spot and remained training with the team as we prepared for the Olympic Qualifier at the end of September,” Evans said. “Knowing I was unlikely to make the final cut for the Olympic Qualifying travel roster, I prepared to head home and spend 10 days or so with my family prior to leaving for a half-season in Romania.”
Evans had been home for just four days when things “all happened at once.”
Evans, who will be joining the inaugural Pro Volleyball Federation for the 2024 season, finished up a team Zoom call with her future Grand Rapids Rise coach Cathy George.
No more than 60 seconds later, she got a text on her cell.
It was Coach Karch.
“‘Are you available to talk? After an injury, we’d like to fly you to Poland ASAP,’” Evans recounted.
One of USA’s setters sustained an injury, Evans said, and Karch was in need of a replacement.
“You never wish injuries upon anyone. My heart hurt so much for the player that was injured,” she stated. “Unfortunately, they’re a huge part of athletics.
“It was a whirlwind. I’m not kidding you. I had to pack and leave for the airport in less than two hours. I had barely unpacked after getting home from training in California.”
Evans was in Poland 24 hours later and a part of a 14-player roster competing in the 2024 Paris Olympic qualifier.
USA, the second-ranked team in the world, knocked off Germany on Sept. 24 to secure next year’s Olympic-qualifying spot.
While the Olympic roster has not been identified yet, roughly 20 women will compete for the selective 12-player roster that will represent USA at the Games in Paris.
Evans will be competing for one of those spots.
“Knowing that I am unlikely to be one of those 12, my goal remains the same — to compete hard, help prepare our USA team in any way possible, and to stay ready, as history indicates anything can happen,” Evans said.
“I may not be the most gifted athlete, and I may not have a 30-inch vertical,” Evans added. “But I love what I do, and I just won’t be outworked.
“If you truly want to go after something, pour your heart and soul into it. At the end of the day, you have no regrets.”
Not without a little persistence and perseverance.