Deja McClendon celebrates on the court.

Glass Childress, McClendon return to Penn State in Exhibition Tour finale

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: Jade Hewitt Media
Bruce Miles
Apr 20, 2023

Alisha Glass Childress and Deja McClendon are separated by just a few years in age.

They’re brought together by two much more important things: Penn State University and Athletes Unlimited Volleyball. 

The two will step onto their beloved Rec Hall court on April 21 for the finale of Athletes Unlimited’s Volleyball Exhibition Tour, which features AU pros playing with and against college teams. 

“Oh, my gosh,” said McClendon, a two-time champion at Penn State. “It’s weird because I thought I would never play in that gym again. Now it’s a reality. It’s coming up. Another dream of mine was being able to play with Alisha. Now, we’re going to get to play together. It’s really one of those things that feels surreal. I get to do it as a professional player, so that’s even better.

“She is one of the reasons I went to Penn State. Then on top of that, being able to learn from her now as a professional player is really, really cool. Just outside of volleyball, she’s just an amazing woman and a really great mom. She’s just awesome.”

The feeling is mutual for Glass Childress, who helped lead the Nittany Lions to three NCAA national championships. 

“We missed each other (at Penn State),” she said of McClendon. “In Athletes Unlimited, I don’t think we actually played together at any point last season. We were all around and definitely trained together. Just being in a uniform and being on the same side, it just is really special. I think it’s going to be even more so when we’re at Rec Hall on the court that we both have such fond memories.

“It’s going to be really, really cool. I think the model that we’re trying to shoot for is to play against each other but also do some mixing so I can play alongside Penn State players. I love that because I think we don’t know what this is supposed to look like because we’re creating something that hasn’t been done. I’m excited for all the things we have planned at Penn State. I think it’s all going to be so amazing.”

The Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Exhibition Tour is exposing already enthusiastic college crowds to the professional game and is aiming to be a key component in growing the women’s pro game in the United States. 

“I think it’s really important because Athletes Unlimited has been a successful venture in all the sports, specifically in athlete experience and finding great players to come to the league,” said Glass Childress. “We’re having a great time. It’s really saying, ‘Hey, more people should know about this,’ and we want to generate more buzz around professional volleyball here in the States.

“Initially, the goal was, ‘OK, we need to create something that happens between now and when we move our (AU Championship) season to the fall.’ It’s like walking into this really great idea and question mark on, ‘Maybe we should do this again and keep doing it,’ because this has been so well received. I think it’s absolutely hitting the mark in terms of getting players to understand what we’re doing. We have a platform to get to play on their networks and say, ‘Hey, this is Athletes Unlimited. If you didn’t know about it, you should come join us in the fall.’” 

No one knows what pleasant surprises might pop up when a venture like the Volleyball Exhibition tour embarks. But story after story has emerged, including one of an Ohio State player sending McClendon a note of thanks for simply offering some encouragement. 

For McClendon, that small act of giving was its own reward for her. 

“My heart exploded with happiness,” she said. “I got a chance to play on Ohio State’s team because we did a kind of a mashup of teams. Being around her (the OSU player), I just saw something. It was a little bit of hesitancy or just a little bit of that feeling of not knowing whether she should jump into the game. And I had had that feeling so many times in my life, especially not being a six-rotation player when I started out. I realized, ‘You’re awesome. You’re so good. Don’t be afraid to jump in and play and get into the serve-receive rotation.’

“Giving her that little bit of push, she messaged me a couple days later that she got into the serve-receive rotation and that she did really well, and she was so proud of herself. She just wanted to thank me. That was just something you work for. It’s part of the reason we still play as professionals, to spread that knowledge and that wealth and that confidence. I’m so glad I could give that little piece to her.”

It’s not stopping there. McClendon also wants to recognize Penn State coach Katie Schumacher Cawley for the warm welcome she has given to Athletes Unlimited players even before they step foot on campus. 

“She was also a player,” McClendon said. “It’s really, really cool that we’ll have the opportunity to play with her. She’s going to be our coach for two sets, but she also sent us the most amazing care packages. She sent us Penn State hoodies and a nice handwritten note. I just want to highlight her for welcoming us with open arms.”

Both Glass Childress and McClendon are veteran volleyball players with the perspective of having played overseas, with all of the positives and negatives that brings. They also know the potential that Athletes Unlimited holds in allowing outstanding college players to continue their careers closer to home. 

“The thing that stood out to me was, not only are we trying to create professional volleyball here in the States, because we need it, but we’re also just super intrigued to create an athlete experience that is high-level professional,” Glass Childress said. “They understand that the best person to speak to is the athletes directly. I think that idea is so great because we have experiences abroad where some things went well and some things really didn’t go well.

“We’ve accumulated that knowledge and so we have this opinion about, ‘This is how athletes should get taken care of. This is how decisions should be made.’ They were the first ones to say, ‘We want to hear that. We want to tap into that knowledge so we can create something that’s so great.’ I think that’s really impressive. And not everyone’s doing that. That was really exciting to me, especially having been in a coaching position. I’m looking at things like a coach. I’m also looking at things like a player.”

For McClendon, Athletes Unlimited has met her expectations in that regard and then some. 

“It’s so much more,” she said. “I started off as just a player. I was a skeptical player. I was one of those players who listened and I was like, ‘OK, how is this different? Is this going to survive? Is this going to give me something I’ve been searching for?’ After playing pro for a while, it’s hard to find the love of the game still. I came in as a player, and once I saw how much they were willing to give us as players, like control over running a league on our own and pushing the things we think are important as women, I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more involved.

“Now, I’m a part of the Player Executive Committee. I’m in it, and I’m here to make this a sustainable thing and keep this going. I think it has exceeded my expectations as far as what we’re trying to do, not only in volleyball and a league in the States but also as athletes and representatives of high-level sports in the world and also our morals and the things we care about. We put those things really high up on our list of what we want to exhibit as human beings and as professional athletes. I am AU all the way, and I just want to keep growing it.”


Bruce Miles has covered sports in the Chicago area for more than 40 years, covering baseball, hockey, football, college and high school sports, and Athletes Unlimited Softball. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.

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