IC Catholic Prep senior Ava Falduto and Timothy Christian junior Abby Vander Wal are good friends who live five minutes apart in Elmhurst.
Yet the Division I women’s volleyball recruits never were teammates. That finally changed when they shared the dream of representing the United States internationally.
And a gold medal. Their U.S. team won the FIVB Under-19 World Championships in Osijek, Croatia with a 20-25, 23-25, 25-22, 25-16, 15-10 comeback over Turkey Aug. 11.
“When we were on the podium doing the Star Spangled Banner, I just got chills thinking about it. It was probably one of the coolest moments of my life,” Vander Wal said. “Essentially on top of the world with my whole team and all of the work we put into this. It was just an amazing feeling.”
They then represented the U.S. at the U-21 World Championships Aug. 17-26 in Mexico City. The team of high school players took sixth against predominantly college and professional opponents. Falduto and Vander Wal were among five players to compete in both events. In May, they helped the U.S. win the U-19 NORCECA Pan American Cup in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico.
“I keep using the word incredible, but that’s all I can think of. To experience this, it was just amazing,” Falduto said. “We’re literally best friends. We’re really tight so doing this with her has been a complete dream. We say this the whole time – no way there’s two Elmhurst athletes that live five minutes apart traveling the world together.”
The 6-foot-3 Vander Wal verbally committed to Texas in June. In Croatia, Vander Wal was named Most Valuable Player and Best Outside Hitter after scoring a U.S.-best 19 points in the final with 15 kills, two blocks and two aces. The 5-7 Falduto received the Best Receiver Award at the Pan American Cup. The Penn State recruit was the full-time libero in Puerto Rico and Mexico City and split time with another libero and was a defensive specialist in Croatia.
For ICCP, Falduto plays outside hitter and helped the Knights finish second in Class 2A last season after defeating Timothy in a three-set sectional final.
“I cannot even describe the feeling putting on the jersey for the first time that says USA on the chest,” Falduto said. “It’s a little similar to a state championship and the big club tournaments but it’s something that I’ve always dreamed of and I don’t think anything compares to it – or even comes close.”
During club season, both play for 1st Alliance but in different age groups that sometimes scrimmage each other. They roomed together in Croatia and the 12-player roster tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“I think I was more excited to see her on the roster. I knew how bad she wanted it,” Vander Wal said. “I was so glad we made it and got to do the experience together.”
Fortunately, they were there for each other. Falduto’s parents also were able to attend both summer tournaments. In Croatia, Falduto became ill and missed the final matches.
“Abby is such a great person and so caring. Her personality is something you don’t find everywhere,” Falduto said.
During pool play in Mexico City, Vander Wal suffered a concussion when a Brazilian player drilled an attack into her face while playing middle back. Vander Wal missed the playoff round and for two days was unable to physically attend. When Vander Wal returned to watch, she wore noise-reducing headphones and sunglasses.
“It was kind of a funny look, that’s for sure,” Vander Wal said.
Vander Wal said playing U-21 opponents was intimidating.
“These girls were the real deal,” she said.
The underdog U.S. defeated host Mexico in five sets.
“We had thousands of people watching and it was an incredible match,” Falduto said. “Playing in front of that crowd for the first time, it was really something I didn’t think I’d experience at this age.”
Returning early last week, the pair have quickly caught up with school and rejoining their high-school teams.
“(I’ll remember) just being on stage singing the national anthem or just the fight that the U-19 and U-21 teams had,” Vander Wal said. “I call it the USA America fight. It was just so cool seeing how we battled back in tough matches.”
Willowbrook (9-0) won its eight-team invite with a 25-19, 25-13 victory over Metea Valley. ICCP defeated Timothy 25-18, 25-7 for the championship of the Timothy/Westmont Invite. At Conant, St. Francis seniors Catherine D’Orazio and KK Dumpit and Glenbard East seniors Sophia Sommesi and Hannah Meyer were all-tournament.