Inside the dingy, yet-to-be-renovated Kelly Walsh High School gym stood voluminous giddy middle-school girls for one of the Trojans’ 2014 volleyball camps. The camp served as an open gym, essentially, allowing the younger girls of Casper to get a few pointers from high school volleyball standouts. Natrona County had underwent a coaching change only a few years prior and a Fillies-hosted camp wasn’t guaranteed. Trojans head coach Jeff Barkell knew the their camp would be highly-attended as a result.
Nearly 100 girls showed up to the camp. A dozen stood out to the coaches; a few more so than others.
A young blonde with bony extremities impressed Barkell. A friend had invited her to the camp a few years earlier. Even though Dean Morgan Middle School served as a “feeder school” to nearby Natrona County in many’s eyes, Danilynn Schell just wanted to play volleyball. Schell accepted her friend’s invitation and kept coming back to Kelly Walsh’s open gyms.
Another girl that Barkell continued to praise was a familiar face already standing taller than most of her peers. He’d known Brent and Chris Carruth for years, so he’d been well aware of their daughter Corin and her volleyball ambitions and standout status at Centennial Middle School.
Schell and Carruth would become landmark athletes for the Kelly Walsh volleyball program. They’d split spotlight, state championships and honors. They’d both commit to play Division I volleyball, a rarity in Wyoming. As Kelly Walsh seniors in the Class of 2020, they’d return for one last season, a curtain call for their journey up to that point.
As young girls in an open gym they shared appreciation for the older girls. Regardless of ability or popularity, each standout Trojan they looked up to was willing to help. That meant something.
“When a Maddy Vinich talks to you and you’re an eighth-grader, you feel special,” Barkell said, in reference to former Wyoming Gatorade Player of the Year Madison Vinich. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing, is how they treat each other when they come into the gym.”
Schell appreciated mentors like that. She also trusted Barkell and his successes as a coach. So she chose Kelly Walsh, where she could also play with those she was familiar with.
“Most of these girls, I’ve been playing with them since middle school,” Schell said. “I kind of wanted to keep that going.”
Carruth, meanwhile, was sold on the pitch of emulating those role models. Those older girls weren’t superheroes, they were Trojans. And she wanted to be one, too.
“The environment of the girls before us,” she said. “And the coaches, too. We just have a really good culture here.”
With those two commitments, the Trojans gained two exceptional athletes. They’d played each other in middle school and knew what the other could do. Barkell and his assistants knew the duo would be impactful, it was only a matter of time.
Welcome to KW
Carruth and Schell walked into that first week of high school volleyball practice ready to make an impact. They both proved their abilities but the team’s pre-existing depth determined where they’d be needed.
One of the spots the Trojans were thin at was setter. Even though Schell was developing a powerful swing the coaches knew she could adapt. Meanwhile, the Trojans had a wealth of middle blockers. Former standouts Payton Stack, Madison Wilhelm and Jill Phipps all gave the team depth down its spine. That left Corruth on the outside looking in.
Barkell held meetings with every player and told them of the team’s plans. For Schell, that meant starting on the varsity team. For Carruth, it meant playing on the freshman team.
“We knew that if we pulled (Corin) up she’d be sharing time with someone,” Barkell explained. “If we left her there she’d play the whole time. She’d get 200 hits in the varsity gym, but if she played over there she’d get 1,200. So we knew that was going to be a big deal.”
Carruth understood. She took that year to diversify her skills.
“I wouldn’t trade playing freshman for anything,” she exclaimed. “It really helped me grow in a bunch of different areas. It was just super helpful to get all of those reps.”
The learning curve got to Schell initially. She admitted that it was “nerve-wracking” initially while she tried to get up to speed. She also admitted to heavily relying on older girls for advice throughout the year.
After the first few tournaments she began gaining confidence. Once she was able to play in front of a supportive, lively home crowd she felt like she’d finally calmed the nerves for good.
“I had some adjustments that I felt I needed to work on but I felt I had the athleticism,” Schell said, “and as long as I worked at it, I could do anything.”
Carruth pummeled her peers in freshmen games while the varsity Trojans went 28-7 overall, finishing runner-up to Cheyenne East. That completed East’s bid for a third consecutive state championship on the strength of a powerful senior class.
That result went into history books as the Trojans returned primed the following season, albeit with one grand addition.
The first two weekends of the 2017 season brought the Trojans a 10-2 record. It also brought their coaches even more excitement than they anticipated. Carruth had earned the call up to varsity and came out firing.
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Barkell remembered watching Schell setting balls for Carruth on match point against teams like Thunder Basin, Douglas, Rawlins and Laramie, and the sophomore gladly came down with pummeling hits to secure victories.
“OK, they REALLY fit well together,” Barkell recalled telling an assistant.
Schell had a year of experience so she knew what she was doing. She was coming off all-state honors as well as a mention from PrepVolleyball.com as one of the country’s top 40 freshmen.
Admittedly, Carruth still needed some adjusting. After all, there’s really nothing to better prepare a young player for the varsity game than experience in the game itself.
“There was a little bit of adjusting because I wasn’t playing in the middle anymore like I was on the freshman team,” Carruth said. “They moved me to outside and that was new so I had a lot to learn.”
Luckily for her, she had numerous high-caliber teammates to turn to. Just as Schell had in her first varsity season, the budding outside hitter looked to those older girls for advice.
“That was super helpful,” she said. “They helped me learn the role of the outside.”
As Carruth learned, Kelly Walsh developed into an imposing force. By the time she’d become a consistent hitter on the outside, the Trojans made their run through the conference season. Kelly Walsh entered the state championship match on a 10-match winning streak, having won nine of them in straight sets, and as the state’s top attacking team. Awaiting the Trojans in the final was three-time defending champion East.
This one went different.
Those program players like Vinich, Phipps and Hallie Jimenez, guided the promising sophomore duo throughout a 3-1 championship win for Kelly Walsh’s first state championship since 2010.
“That was cool because most people don’t get to play varsity as a freshman or a sophomore,” Schell reflected. “That meant a lot.”
Added Carruth: “Extremely crazy. I was hoping for it but I wasn’t expecting it.”
The once-promising middle-school standouts had developed into state champions. They returned the next season with a slate wiped clean but hopes well overhead. The spotlight, however, didn’t shine on an exceptional senior class. It came down on the rising junior duo that started garnering phone calls from college coaches on the recruiting trail.
With eyes on them, the duo helped deliver a Trojans repeat. Carruth nailed an unexpected ace for the season’s penultimate point and Kelly Walsh finished 32-2. The Trojans were suddenly, undoubtedly, the most dominant team in the state. And the team’s two multi-time all-state standouts stood as gatekeepers between challengers and a championship.
‘The perfect storm’
Neither Carruth nor Schell have bright, bubbling personalities on the court. In their younger years they remained focused on not succumbing to their peers’ mistakes. They’ve carried the same amount of attention to detail into their senior season. Despite Schell’s status as reigning Wyoming Gatorade Player of the Year or Carruth’s as Wyoming Coaches Association 4A Player of the Year, they both shed the occasional smile between fundamental drills.
It’s in those drills — a visible display of work ethic, acknowledgement for what made the program great and an appreciation of what’s important — that the two’s impact has truly been felt.
“We’ve got kids coming from different avenues, club ball, whatever,” Barkell said, “they all want to play and then a kid like Dani or Corin come over and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to set.’ Or, ‘Hey, we’re going to pass,’ or even do one-on-one. It gives us a real opportunity to grow skill-wise before we even think about playing games.”
On and off the court they’re friends but there’s no childhood, forever-bound kind of thread between them. They both loved volleyball growing up and wanted to play it at the highest level. They competed against each other in middle school, as well as with and against each other in summer camps. They were familiar with one another and admired each other’s game. Then they became teammates and their relationship grew closer, in part due to a playful competition.
“Dani and I have gotten really close and we just know each other really well,” Carruth said. “I know where she’s going to put the ball. She trusts me and I trust her. It just works.”
Added Schell: “Basically every day is just, we go out and have fun.”
They both prefer to lead by example and their own backgrounds, along with their skill sets, make them separate beacons for young players to come to — not unlike how they sought out advice from older girls at those middle-school camps.
Together, they’ve become what Barkell calls the “perfect storm.” Not that they win every game, but that they both have attractive traits for their younger teammates to gravitate toward. Schell has her own distinctive personality and her play on the court appeals to a certain group. Carruth and her determined communication resonates with a different sect of young Trojans.
Barkell admits he still harps on both of the senior standouts just like he does everyone else. Those younger girls see that and recognize themselves as equals to the two NCAA DI commitments. So while Carruth is committed to play at the University of Wyoming and Schell has pledged her commitment to Wisconsin-Green Bay, they’ve both moved the program forward in ways other than through their numerous accolades.
“You can’t say enough about what it means to have two kids like that,” Barkell said. “A lot of us coaches sit around and wish we could have one kid like that in a career.”
Happily teammates, bound together by fate, the two talented individuals continue to etch their names into the history books together.