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It’s all Greek to her

Maggie Speaks signs on to play professional volleyball in Greece

Posted: July 12, 2017 3:04 p.m.
Updated: July 14, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

MAGGIE SPEAKS IS HOME in Camden and has been helping teach young volleyball players the sport as she prepares to head to Taiwan for the World University Games before beginning her professional career in Greece.

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For as long as Maggie Speaks can remember, summer meant traveling with her family for a beach vacation before returning home and preparing for the upcoming volleyball season, be it  first for Camden Middle School and then, Camden High.

In that situation, there was always a buffer which came between mornings and afternoons lying out on the white sandy beaches of the South Carolina coast followed by days, weeks and months training inside a musty gym in the Midlands. At times, she probably longed to still be lounging on a beach blanket.

Come September, the former Camden High and North Carolina State University volleyball standout will have the best of both worlds. 

Earlier last month, Speaks signed a contract to play professional volleyball in Greece with the Makedones Axiou Club, located in Thessaloníki, the country’s second-largest city with a population of more than 300,000. The town is also close to the sand and beaches of the set of three peninsulas at the southern tip of the Thracian Sea.

Beaches and volleyball paired with being in one of the most picturesque settings in the world? For someone like Speaks who despises the cold weather, it was a sports dream come true for the December 2016 NCSU graduate who had club teams from throughout Europe reaching out to her agent to  in an attempt to try and secure Speaks’ talents.

“There were some teams from Germany, there was a team from Turkey … there had been some teams from all over,” Speaks said of her professional-playing options and locales.

Speaks, a 5-foot-10 setter, laid the foundation for a professional career last January when she traveled to Austria, Slovenia and Germany in what was a public tryout for professional club teams from throughout Europe. That trip to the northern reaches of the continent did not include much sun or, warm weather. While she would have played in one of those or, other areas in which winter can seem miserably long, when Makedones Axiou called her agent to inquire about her playing in sunny Greece, well, it was a no-brainer.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t have minded going anywhere to play,” said the 2012 Camden High graduate, “but going somewhere warm was definitely what I wanted. I got lucky with that.”

When Speaks went to Europe for her sets of open tryouts, it came in the middle of the regular season for club teams. Players being signed at that time of year were a rarity, a fact which the 2016 second team All-ACC selection knew before she boarded her flight from Atlanta. What she hoped would come as a result of her whirlwind stay was to attract the eye of a coach or a club team for the future.

Obviously, her jaunt was not in vain as evidenced by her recent signing.

“The trip was to travel around and maybe, open some eyes and put my name out there, a little bit,” she said. “Nothing came out of it, like I hoped it would.”

Back home, her agent told Speaks not to expect to hear from any clubs until July. The calls and offers, however, came more than a month early. In May, Makedones Axiou made an inquiry and requested game film from Speaks’ N.C. State matches. Less than 24 hours after the films made their way to the team’s coaching staff, Speaks received a call with a contract offer. Within a day, Speaks signed the papers to cement the deal. 

A Level 2 (out of three levels) 1A team, Makedones Axiou, like all European professional teams, is allowed a certain number of foreign players. Presently, Speaks is the lone American player on the roster. That could change, however, as Makedones Axiou is trying to add a former collegiate player from Northwestern University into the fold.

In her conversation with her new coach, Speaks was relieved to learn that he, along with many of his players, speak English which will make that part of the transition easier. “I know girls who have gone to teams where no one spoke English. I got a little lucky with that,” she said.

The club already has picked out a studio apartment for Speaks who has not seen a picture of her new abode, yet. She has also been told me that her transportation is covered as part of the contract. She smiled when saying she was unsure as to what that part of the deal meant. “I don’t know if that means my bus fare or what. I know girls who have gotten cars before but I’m not really sure what I will get,” she said.

Things are more settled as to what will happen once she steps onto the court. She understands her schedule and her life will change from what it was while a member of the Wolfpack. In Greece, her league season will begin in September and continue through March as Makedones Axiou plays teams from throughout the country. Once the playoffs begin, teams may have to travel throughout Europe in a season which could end as late as May. 

“In college, you play one or two matches a week and professionally, you play four or five a week. It’s going to be a lot more strenuous with practice every day,” she said. “I’m not exactly sure what my schedule is going to be like but I know there will be a lot more competition than what I’m used to.”

The professional game also differs from college in its rules and tempo. Fortunately, Speaks played in a fast-paced offense in Raleigh under head coach Linda Hampton-Keith, who joined the program in time for the 2016 campaign. In fact, the offense which Speaks ran from her setter position in college may well have been quicker than the system she will be coming to in Greece.

Whatever style and pace which Makedones Axiou plays, Speaks understands that there will be a learning curve to life on the floor and away from the volleyball arena.

 “I think adjusting to their system and adjusting to how they play. They do have a different system of volleyball and they play differently,” she said when asked of the adjustments she will make to her new life. 

“Also, getting it into my mind that this is now my job and that I have a contract and a career on the line. In college, you have your scholarship but it’s not the same. You have school, volleyball and other things that come into play. Now, it’s just volleyball and that’s what I’m there for. I have to get it in my mind that this is a business and they treat it like a business.”

With playing for pay along with all the practices and matches and trying to keep a job, there will be scant spare down time for Speaks, who said temptation awaits just a short stroll from her apartment.

 “It’s beautiful and it’s 10 minutes from the beach,” she said of Thessaloníki. “It’s going to be hard but I think a lot of girls on the team do that. Hopefully, I’ll do that with them. 

“It will be hard trying to do the things that I want to do that I probably shouldn’t because I want to keep myself rested. That’s one of the things that they said is so hard about Greece; it is so beautiful that it’s kind of hard not to go out and do things even when you should be resting.”

Before starting her professional career, Maggie Speaks has a commitment to her country to fulfill. It does not involve basic training but it does require her visiting a foreign land.

Earlier this spring, she was named to the USA Team which will compete in the 29th World University Games in Taipei City, Taiwan on Aug. 19.

While some sports --- such as basketball in which the Purdue men’s team will represent the USA --- will have squads which have played together as a team before, since the games come during volleyball preseason for college teams, the volleyball squad will be a 12-player all-star squad which includes Speaks as one of two setters on the roster. The team is made up of college players who exhausted their eligibility last fall.

Speaks ran an N.C. State offense that finished the 2016 season with an attacking percentage of .226, second best in the program’s rally-scoring era and fifth best in the ACC. In addition, the Pack averaged 13.46 kills per set, which broke the school’s rally-scoring era mark for most in a season.

With Speaks at the controls, the Wolfpack established the program record for highest attacking percentage in an ACC match with a .407 clip at Clemson and later broke the mark and set the rally-scoring era record for highest attacking percentage in a match with a .468 at Virginia Tech. 

 She also contributed the third-most digs on the team with 288. Speaks notched 10 or more digs on 15 occasions to record 15 double doubles.

 Speaks ended her career with 3,240 assists, second highest in the program's rally-scoring era and fourth best in program history, 644 digs, 322 kills, 210 blocks and 66 service aces. 

Those numbers caught the attention of the USA Team officials who reached out to Speaks via email earlier this spring.

“I got an e-mail from the director of the trip saying that I was being considered and just explaining what (the World University Games were,) I knew they had been recruiting at the USA Trials in Colorado,” she said of the process. “Then, two weeks later, I got another e-mail inviting me to play.”

Playing volleyball for a living is one thing, Speaks said. The chance to represent her country leaves her humbled.

“I just never thought that I would get to the point where I would wear a USA jersey,” she said. “Just the fact that I will have USA across my chest and I will be representing our country in an international competition is something that I always dreamed that I would do but never thought that it would happen this soon.”

The team, coached by USA Women’s National Volleyball Team technical coordinator Joseph Trinsey, will train at the USA Volleyball’s complex in Anaheim, Cal., for three days before leaving for Taipei. Once in Taiwan, they will train for another three days before beginning match play in the Games.

“It’s going to be learn as we go,” Speaks said of getting the team on the same page in such a short span of time. “We’ve already started talking about what system we want to run so that’s helpful.

“I think it will be enough time for us to get to know each other and to get clicking but I don’t think we’ll actually start getting it together until we start the competition.”

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