By Jeff Vorva

The waiting was excruciating.

The result, however, was exhilarating.

Elmhurst residents Abby Vander Wal and Ava Falduto were key players on the USA U-19 team that won the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World Championship on August 11 in Osijek, Croatia.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Falduto, a senior libero at Immaculate Conception High School. “It’s something I’ve always dreamed of as a little kid. Just going out there and representing this country was a dream come true, and winning on top of that was a feeling I can’t even describe.”

To get there had some angst.

Flashback to late July.

The two were at a training facility in Colorado Springs with 17 other athletes on pins and needles, awaiting the news of who would make the final cut for the 12-member team.

Timothy Christian’s Abby Vander Wal and Immaculate Conception’s Ava Falduto hug after winning a world championship in volleyball.

To have two athletes from Elmhurst to just get an invite to the camp was huge. To have both make the team? That would be special. Especially when they were the only representatives from volleyball-strong Illinois.

“That whole day was pretty nerve-wracking and pretty scary,” said Vander Wal, a junior outside hitter at Timothy Christian High School. “Everyone was feeling nervous. They were supposed to send us a text message at 4 in the afternoon.”

Vander Wal said most of the players roamed by themselves at the Colorado Springs facility, waiting for the text because they wanted to be alone to deal with their feelings if there was bad news.

Falduto said that when the text finally came, technology threw a curveball.

“I was on a bench, but before that, I was pacing back and forth,” she said. “It wasn’t loading, and I didn’t have the best connection, so when (coach Jamie Morrison) sent it out, it was just loading for a few minutes, so I was just freaking out. Abby’s didn’t load either. When mine finally loaded, I ran over to Abby, and she didn’t get it yet, so I got to tell her, so that was pretty cool.”

“Just going out there and representing this country was a dream come true, and winning on top of that was a feeling I can’t even describe.”

– Ava Falduto on winning the Volleyball World Championship

The two hugged when they got the good news.

“We had no idea we would make the team because everything was so close,” Vander Wal said. “There was no guarantee for anything. We didn’t know what to expect. We gave each other a big hug. It was a really cool moment.”

Vander Wal said that although they were never teammates until being selected to the USA team, they met seven years ago in Atlantic City when her brother, Ben, and Falduto’s brother, Johnny, played on the travel basketball circuit for the Lombard-based Breakaway Basketball program.

“Back then, we both played volleyball at a different age level,” Vander Wal said. “We obviously didn’t know something like this would happen. She (Falduto) is one of my best friends, and we have gotten to be super tight over the last two years. We have grown close, and making this special trip with her has been amazing.”

The 5-foot-7 Falduto is heading to Penn State and has plans to enroll there early. The 6-foot-3 Vander Wal has made a verbal commitment to the University of Texas but has some volleyball left in her at Timothy Christian.

The USA beat Türkiye 20-25, 23-25, 25-22, 25-16, 15-10 in a come-from-behind marathon to claim the gold medal. Vander Wal had 15 kills, two blocks, and two aces and was named the tournament’s MVP. Falduto was a defensive wizard throughout the tournament.

The USA went 9-0 in the tournament and matches against Korea, Serbia, Brazil, and the title match against Türkiye went five games.

“The girls were great, and we had a really good connection on and off the court,” Falduto said. “We all got along, and it was really fun to play with them.” ■

Elmhurst residents Abby Vander Wal and Ava Falduto formed a friendship seven years ago and won a world championship in volleyball in August. Photo by Victor Hilitski