By Lisa Byers
There is very little that Ben Wolff loves more than volleyball. But once again, playing volleyball competitively will have to wait. And this time, the postponement will follow the pinnacle of his career: A national championship.
Nearly a year ago, Ben earned the gig of a lifetime, playing professional volleyball abroad in the Czech Republic.
The opportunity presented itself following an exposure tour in Europe. Ben was not immediately signed after the tour, nor after a week-long training session in Slovenia. However, hours after he returned home to Meadville, Ben, a 2008 Meadville Area Senior High School graduate, received a call from his agent in Italy informing him of interest from a squad in the Czech Republic that was in need of a middle hitter.
Approximately two days later, Ben was packed and on a flight headed to the Central European nation.
There he joined a team, Ostrava, that was not really considered a contender in the Czech Republic’s volleyball federation.
“When I went over, I don’t want to say anyone was badmouthing our own team, but I was like, ‘What should we do this year?’” Wolff recalled. “There are 11 teams in our league. The guys said (we would be) eighth or seventh in the playoffs at best.
“I thought, ‘Well, OK. That is what I should be satisfied with.’”
Soon, the Ostrava team was beating expectations.
“As the season went on and we started playing really well together and stuff, things just started to click. All of a sudden we were in the playoffs and were the fifth seed.”
To open the playoffs, Ostrava faced the No. 4 seed, Zlin, winning it in six matches of the best-of-seven series.
That moved Ostrava on to face the No. 1 team in the nation, Liberec.
“I was talking to my parents and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s crazy that we did this, but we have the No. 1 team. They play in the champions league. They’ve traveled around and played teams in Italy.’”
The first match against the top seed did not go well. But the following night, Ostrava pulled off the upset followed by back-to-back wins at home to take a 3-1 lead.
“I remember my mom said, ‘The air was electric,’” Ben said. “I couldn’t even believe it.”
Ostrava returned to Liberec and won Game 5 and finished the series in Ostrava with a Game 6 victory.
Next up: Ceske Budejovice, the No. 2 seed.
“At this point I wanted to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to win.’ But really I didn’t know what to say,” Ben said. “We ended up playing awesome again. The only time we really faltered was the sixth game when we went back to play (at Ceske Budejovice).”
Ostrava went to Ceske Budejovice for Game 6 leading the series 4-1. Ostrava took the first two sets, 25-22, 25-23, but Ceske Budejovice rallied back with wins in Games 3 and 4 (25-22, 25-20) to force a 15-point fifth and deciding game.
Ceske Budejovice rode the momentum and was just a point away from sending the series to a seventh match, leading Game 5 14-11.
Ben had been subbed out, but was re-entered when Ostrava earned the serve. One mistake and the match was over.
“I was so nervous,” Ben said. “All the reporters over there asked me, ‘How nervous were you?’ It’s the most nervous I had ever been in my life. If I missed the serve it was over.”
Ben, who had a stellar career at Juniata College, didn’t miss. He went back to the line and served four straight points to give Ostrava a 15-14 lead. Ceske Budejovice did side out to tie it at 15-15 and Ben returned to the bench for the libero.
“I just kept thinking, ‘I hope we finish this,’” Ben said. “There was no chance I was going to go back in. Someone was going to score two points here or there, and they didn’t.
“Side out, side out. Back and forth.”
Tied 17-17, Ben re-entered, this time in the front row. And once again he came through for his team, helping out on back-to-back defensive blocks that sealed the game, the match and the championship. Ostrava had won the Czech Republic title.
“I didn’t really know what to do after we won,” Ben said. “Everyone was running around and I was like, ‘I can’t believe we just won.’
“We were barely supposed to make playoffs. For my first season, I couldn’t have asked for anything more than that.”
Ben, however, had very little time to celebrate.
Ostrava won the Czech Republic championship on April 29. Not even a month later, Ben was under a knife for emergency surgery at a hospital — 4,300 miles from Meadville — where relatively no one spoke English.
On the evening of May 21, Ben began experiencing pain in his abdomen. By 4 a.m. the following morning the pain had become intolerable.
“It was 4 a.m. over (in Ostrava) and I still hadn’t slept,” Ben said. “The pain just kept getting worse and worse. I decided to go to the hospital. So I Skyped my parents (Denis and Leslie) to tell them what was going on.
“I told them I was fine and that I was sure everything was going to be all right.”
Everything was not all right on the night of Oct. 7, 2005 when Denis and Leslie received word that Ben, then 16 years old, had been involved in a car accident and was seriously injured.
The accident happened on Route 27 in West Mead Township while Ben, a passenger, and friends were heading to a high school football game. Ben was ejected from the vehicle and transferred to Hamot Medical Center where he was in a coma in the intensive care unit for weeks.
“My mom said it was one those phone calls you never want to have to get,” Ben said of the Skype call in May.
Ben did manage to communicate with his parents through text messages once he arrived at the hospital, but for hours Denis and Leslie sat at home in Meadville with no idea what was going on with their son.
“We didn’t hear anything for approximately five hours,” Denis said. “Us being here and him being there … Nobody knows the emptiness and the feeling of it. We just prayed everything was O.K.
“Next text we got was that he had gone through surgery.”
In order to better assess Ben’s problem, doctors admitted Ben to the intensive care unit and then took him for an MRI. Not too long after, the doctor informed Ben he was headed to surgery. He had adhesions, bands of scar-like tissue that form between surfaces, causing a total intestinal blockage.
“The only way it could have gotten there is from surgery before,” said Ben, making reference to the surgery following his accident eight years ago. “They said there is a good chance it will happen again.”
Ben went into the hospital on a Tuesday. By Thursday, Leslie had joined her son in the Czech Republic to help facilitate his care. Ben struggled to eat solid foods throughout his recovery and hospital officials were less than hesitant to let him return to the United States.
Back home, Denis was on the phone. He spoke with Dr. Brian E. Dalton in Erie, who had cared for Ben following his accident. Then he called Dr. Randy Zelen, who was put in contact with Leslie in Ostrava and then Ben’s doctor.
Eventually, with Leslie and Dr. Zelen’s help, Ben agreed to remain on a liquid diet until he returned home.
Next, Denis made contact with everyone he knew who might possibly help with Ben’s transport home. He called Greenleaf Corporation, who Denis said went above and beyond, but due to Ben’s condition and liability concerns were unable to help.
“They couldn’t have been nicer,” Denis said. “I tried everybody I could think of. I talked to anybody with military ties.”
Leslie contacted the Embassy in Prague. A woman there told the Wolff family it would cost $10,000 an hour — for what is normally a 24-plus hour flight — to fly Ben and Leslie home.
Finally, Leslie was able to reschedule her flight back and a team manager for the Ostrava men’s volleyball team worked to get the same flight for Ben. About 28 to 29 hours later, Ben and Leslie were home.
“My wife is the hero,” Denis said. “She went over there on her own for two and a half weeks got him packed up and on his way home.”
Now Ben waits … again.
“It is what it is. Just a little setback,” Ben said.
“The first church service we went to when we got back (to Meadville) probably two weeks after, the minister was talking about those certain things that happen or certain phrases that just immediately click … My mom was like, ‘Yeah. It was definitely that phone call. Just another one of those things,’” Ben said.
Ben will not be medically released until Aug. 22. Teams in the Czech Republic begin play roughly a month after that.
“To get back in shape in a month or less to go back over somewhere … I am going to take a year off and lift and train and stuff and hopefully go back the following year.”
“It’s very surreal to look back on the season that I just had,” Ben continued. “For sure it stinks to not be able to play. That’s all I talk to my parents about, ‘Worst of all I can’t play volleyball.’
“Overall, I’m just happy to play the sport that I love and do something that I love still. I’m not down and out yet.”
Not at all. While nursing his way back, Ben will work alongside his girlfriend, Kristin Barott, coaching girls volleyball at Loyola Sacred Heart High School in Missoula, Mont.