On March 2, Tony Vela began decorating his kitchen table.
The table’s ornamentation included a volleyball, a Westcliff University placard, a matching Westcliff blue pennant and a gray visor emblazoned with the words, “Next Level,” the name of the select volleyball program that Vela started seven years ago.
Vela wanted Brian Castaneda to have a suitable signing ceremony. He doesn’t know Castaneda’s entire story; the latter doesn’t providing too many details. But in January, Castaneda was experiencing some struggles, and moved into Vela’s home
But Vela does know this: His pupil has worked hard to ensure future success.
Ever since joining Vela’s Next Level beach program in June 2018, Castaneda has toiled to become a college-level volleyball player. He didn’t have the money to pay the $225 monthly fee to participate in Next Level’s beach program, but he found other ways to finance his lessons: He helped Next Level’s staff rake the sand and clean the courts; he even assisted Vela in coaching. He identified the weaknesses in his game, asking Vela what he could do to improve. And he created a Next College Student Athlete account, consistently uploading highlights of his practice film.
He wanted to play out of state and find a school with a men’s beach team. Westcliff University in Irvine, California checked off both boxes. The interest was mutual. In early March, Castaneda received an email with a scholarship offer from Westcliff’s coach. He immediately shared the good news with Vela and his wife, Karenrose Vela. On March 3, Castaneda signed his letter of intent on the Vela’s kitchen table.
“For him to have the opportunity to get to go and further his career is good because I’m not sure he was ever going to get go to college, or what he was going to do the rest of his life,” Vela said. “It was a really cool deal because he achieved something that he wanted to achieve and he was going to be able to get a degree and further his career in the sport he loved.”
Castaneda, though, isn’t the only player who’s enjoyed success through Next Level. His close friend, Koedi Martinez, became the first person in the Hill Country to play men’s college indoor volleyball. During the last two years, Vela estimates that 10 other Players have committed to play college volleyball. In fact, Next Level has essentially become a factory of solid volleyball players. During the winter, he program runs eight to 10 indoor club teams with players from Kerrville, Ingram, Harper and Fredericksburg. During the summer, it offers beach training Monday through Thursday (More information can be found on Next Level’s website: https://nlvolleyball.weebly.com). Vela knows his players all have different aspirations when it comes to volleyball — some dream of playing in college, while others just want to be great in high school — but his personal goal always remains the same; he just hopes that every kid who goes through his program becomes the best volleyball player possible.
“Our focus, the thing that we emphasize, is that we want to help the kids get better,” Vela said. “I get to watch a lot of these kids play high school volleyball at Ingram, Tivy and Fredericksburg. … it’s very rewarding to see these kids go out and showcase their skills and talent during the high-school season.”
The idea for Next Level dawned while Vela was giving private lessons in 2012. At the time, Kerrville didn’t have a travel volleyball team, so his students suggested he start one himself. He followed their advice, naming his inaugural team “Next Level.”
It turned out to be a success. The following year, he hosted a tryout that attracted a large turnout — the program was already taking off. But Next Level really started to thrive in 2016, when Vela united with long-time Fredericksburg volleyball coach Jason Roemer, who had just begun his coaching tenure at Tivy. Not only did Roemer help expand Next Level’s scope to Fredericksburg, he also brought years of knowledge and experience to the program. To this day, Roemer coaches the younger players, while Vela focuses his attention on the high-school athletes.
“I didn’t realize we would be where we are today,” Vela said. “I think what the (players’) parents were drawn to was the fact that we were able to build relationships with their kids, and at the end of the day, help the kids get better.
“We started getting kids exposure,” Vela continued. “The bigger we got, the better we got — We were able to take these kids to some competitive tournaments in San Antonio, Austin, Houston and Dallas. We had kids who wanted to compete at the national level.”
Then again, it’s almost a necessity that high-school players compete at a high level throughout the year, if they want to help their high school teams contend in the postseason. Specialization is becoming more common in the current landscape of high school sports, with more athletes opting to play just one sport throughout the calendar year. The trend has made it almost impossible for athletes to just play volleyball during just the high-school season and expect to compete at a high level. They have to play club volleyball in some capacity to succeed at the high-school level
“I have been calling club volleyball the necessary evil because to compete with elite teams in the state of Texas, you got to have some elite talent,” said Roemer, who is once again coaching at Fredericksburg after spending two seasons at Tivy and one at Lake Dallas. “Touching the ball 12 months out of the year is what it takes to become elite.”
Next Level is also relatively affordable compared to other select travel programs. While San Antonio migh possess the best select travel programs in the area, the fees to join these organizations are expensive. Moreover, playing for these teams entails countless hours in the car driving to and from San Antonio throughout the school year, rendering it almost impossible to play another high-school sport. Some high school players might be willing to make this sacrifice. But most aren’t.
Both Vela and Roemer understand this. It’s why they try their best to accommodate multi-sport athletes. Roemer pointed out that during the winter, his players can attend a Hal Peterson basketball practice in the afternoon, and then train
with Next Level in the evening..
In other words, Next Level allows athletes to play volleyball throughout the year, while also encouraging them to pursue other sports.
Most importantly, they hope to create a family atmosphere in their program. Castaneda certainly appreciates the camaraderie, admitting his Next Level family encouraged him through difficult moments this year. On July 31, that family will watch Castaneda hop on a plane to California, ready to begin the next chapter of his life. He plans on studying business administration at Westcliff, and someday earn his Masters degree, hoping to pursue a career in sports management.
“I’m pumped, ready to compete at the next level (no pun intended),” Castaneda said. “Being able to play volleyball under Tony and Next Level has made me become the man I am today.”