Patriots’ gentle leader grows into expectations

Caitlin O'Hara/The Herald
Throughout her career, Heritage Hills senior Maddie Fella has coped with chronic back problems, as well as the expectations that come with being 6-foot-2 and from a family of athletes. She’s become comfortable in the lead role and has helped the Patriots to a 5-1 mark so far and a spot in the Class 3A rankings at No. 9.

Herald Sports Editor

Being tall is apparently a superpower.

In the Venn diagram of athletics, the two tend to overlap without exception. Maddie Fella, the Heritage Hills volleyball middle hitter and basketball center, has lived with that practically since kindergarten, when she stood tallest in her treeline of classmates. People see Fella’s 6-foot, 2-inch presence and conclude that she has a duty night in and night out. Seventeen kills in a match? That’s expected. Fourteen points and 11 rebounds? Well I’d hope so, because you’re a head taller than most everyone.

It may be unfair, but that’s the thinking among people in the tier under Fella — even with people who know the Patriot senior the best.

“We’ve actually had some conversations about the expectations that people do have for her. And I know I was as guilty of it as anybody,” Heritage Hills volleyball coach Annie Gunselman said. “She came in as a freshman, she’s a 6-2 girl, I’m thinking, gosh, she’s going to have this huge impact, and we’re going to do this with her. And forgetting that when she started playing high school, what was she, 14? It’s something she knows she’s had to deal with, and I think for the most part, she’s handled it very well.

“She doesn’t show her emotions a lot, but I know it has weighed on her. She has gotten better at dealing with it and accepting that role.”

Fella certainly didn’t have an escape clause, either.

Her father, Brad, was all-state in the Big Three (football, basketball, baseball) at Heritage Hills, got drafted by the Chicago White Sox organization in 1987 and played a few years of minor league ball. Her mom, Connie (Jochim), was voted most athletic female in the senior class when she and Brad graduated in 1984.

And while Maddie’s older siblings Chelsea and Jake were also immersed in sports in high school, Maddie possessed the most organic talent among the siblings, Brad said.

“Between (her parents), yeah, a lot of people, they’re like, ‘Oh man, those Fella kids...’” Brad said. “The expectations were definitely there.”

Partly because of her talent and partly to fill a glaring need, Maddie bypassed JV volleyball altogether as a freshman. She smiles when thinking of the image of herself back then, when “I didn’t have any muscle to me whatsoever.”

Strength came. So did belief, in her second year of club volleyball before her sophomore season, when “she started kind of realizing, ‘Hey I can play with these gals from Ohio and Texas and Florida,’” Brad said. “When the confidence came, the work ethic came along with it, and she’s kind of been on an uptick ever since then.”

These days, the expectations hardly ruffle Maddie, because she’s beaten everyone else to the punch.

Before every match, she’ll envision a goal she’d like to hit — could be 15 kills, or 17, or five blocks — and goes to work.

“That’s actually a common goal for myself,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s like what people expect of me, because I expect it out of myself, too. Or I reach for that, at least.”

Tuesday against Jasper, Fella met the 15 kills despite a three-set loss and a day when she felt less than stellar as an illness nagged at her and kept her out of school the next day.

The highs and lows have both been typical.

Fella also plays with one bulging disk and two degenerative disks in her back. Over the summer at a national volleyball tournament, the pain worsened to the point that Fella couldn’t stand. She spent three days in a wheelchair. Gunselman occasionally notices a wincing Fella take an extra second to pull herself to her feet after scrambling for a ball. But all Gunselman hears when she inquires about Fella’s back is “I’m fine, I’m fine.”

No surprise there, because Fella’s not one to concoct a spectacle. Not when pumping a kill at sometimes-impossible angles straight down at the floor, and not when she verbally committed last summer to play volleyball at Morehead State University in Kentucky. Her gentle aura makes her popularity widespread, Gunselman said. She’s in with the jock crowd, naturally, as classmate and basketball/baseball player Tyler Ward sported “Fella 7” with her name and number on the back of his shirt during Tuesday’s match against Jasper. But Fella’s also comfortable in a realm independent of sports.

As part of a professional internship program, she works at school with special needs classes, which Fella describes as “a passion” she’s had since she was younger and family friends had a daughter with special needs.

“Starting out young and meeting her, I’ve always known I wanted to help them,” Fella said.

In the last two periods of each school day, Fella first assists with middle school gym class and helping students swim. Then, it’s back to the high school where Fella leads a group of special needs girls through on-the-job training: helping them clean the cafeteria, make sure their job checklist for the day is complete, helping them learn what a real job’s going to entail.

For someone who’ll be majoring in special education in college with plans to teach in that field eventually, a tender-hearted Maddie “might have struggled a little bit getting in that leadership role and really getting after people and not having to apologize” when it comes to the competition of sports, her father said. Gunselman has long urged Fella for more shows of emotion on the floor. Animated fist-pumping and jumping — menacing roars — something. But “having coached a very long time, I have learned that you can’t make kids into what they’re not,” Gunselman said.

Even-tempered. Fella is who she is. And she owns it with a strong sense of self. “Junior and senior year, I’ve felt more comfortable with the game in general,” she said.

The same goes with her rangy stature.

Recently, Fella and teammates were discussing their heights, and the would-you-want-to-be-shorter question was pitched to Fella.

No thank you. Six-foot-2 is where it’s at.

“There would be days that maybe if my back’s bothering me it’d be like, oh I wish I was shorter. But in reality, I wouldn’t want to be,” Fella said. “I like my height, and I like where I am. So I’ll stay here.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at

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