Photo Provided

Ellie Hepler (L) and her mom/coach Chandra Hepler pose with the AAU National Volleyball championship trophy, recently earned in Orlando, Fla.
Photo Provided Ellie Hepler (L) and her mom/coach Chandra Hepler pose with the AAU National Volleyball championship trophy, recently earned in Orlando, Fla.
Ellie Hepler has done much of her homework in a car over the last four years. In a typical week, she eats most of her dinners on the road.

Along for every step of it — more specifically, every one of the thousands upon thousands of miles — has been her mom, Chandra Hepler.

It’s been a labor of love for both, now with a couple national titles to show for it, too.

Ellie, as the team’s libero who earned All-American honors, and Chandra, as assistant coach, helped the Boiler Juniors 13 Gold capture the group’s second AAU National volleyball age-group crown in three years last month in Orlando, Fla.

Chandra’s the second-year head coach at Warsaw High and a longtime familiar face on the Indiana volleyball scene, both as a coach on a bevy of levels and from her Tiger playing days, when she earned first-team all-state honors as Chandra Hopkins before graduating in 1995.

Ellie, 13, is heading into eighth grade at Edgewood Middle School.

She just completed her fourth year as part of The Academy Boiler Juniors program, which is based in Lafayette — more than two hours and nearly 100 miles from Warsaw.

“I think she does get tired, but she’s never exhausted,” Chandra said this week of the intense schedule her daughter has embraced. “She always calls her team ‘my people,’ and it’s been that way from the first time she went to practice there. She really does consider them sisters.”

A club season typically begins with tryouts in October, and can continue all the way into the following July, with few breaks in between.

Boiler Gold practices are four nights per week. Chandra and Ellie leave around 5 p.m. each evening and get home around midnight.

In addition, there’s an assortment of weekend tournaments around the state and beyond leading up to nationals.

“Yeah, I’m tired,” Chandra said with a laugh. “It’s a lot to balance, especially with (coaching) Warsaw as well, plus I have my high school and youth camps in the summer, but it’s fun. I love it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it, and it’s just a bonus that my daughters love it as much as I have.”

Chandra and Abe Hepler’s younger daughter, 8-year-old Eden, is into volleyball, too, along with gymnastics.

Ellie’s twin brother, A.J., competes in wrestling and travel baseball.

While Chandra and Ellie certainly could have aligned with a club program closer to home, Chandra has a long, tight history with the Shondells, a family nationally renowned across multiple generations in volleyball circles. Chandra’s familiarity includes her own playing days with the Shondells’ Munciana club.

“For me, it’s about the relationships and the way the program excels,” Chandra said of why she chose The Academy Boiler Juniors for Ellie and herself. “We are a family.”

John Shondell, besides being an assistant to brother Dave for all of the latter’s 18 seasons as head coach at Purdue University, started Boiler Juniors about six years ago, according to Chandra.

In her first season aboard, Ellie helped the program’s 10U Gold team place third at AAU nationals.

Over the last three years, with Chandra as assistant coach after having a more informal role the first year, Ellie’s teams have taken first, second and first in the nation.

Besides the Lafayette area, the team’s players include individuals from Huntington, Carmel, Fishers and Noblesville.

John Shondell served as the group’s head coach both this year and in 2018, with Suzanne Masten, head coach at Tri-West High School, in the lead seat in 2019 and 2020.

John’s daughter, setter Lexi Shondell, joined Ellie as one of the team’s three All-American honorees last month, with outside hitter and tourney MVP Calista Foster the other. She is the daughter of Todd Foster, a former Purdue basketball player and now an associate director of athletics there.

Competing in the 30-team open division, the Boiler Juniors roared to an 11-0 record across pool and bracket play on the way to this year’s title.

They defeated Tribe 13 Elite Hector of Deerfield Beach, Fla., 25-15, 24-26, 16-14 in the championship. Tribe 13 entered the final 10-0 with sweeps in all 10 of its matches, while the Boilers were extended to three sets three times heading into the finale.

“I think it’s the special bond these girls have formed and the leadership of John Shondell,” Chandra said of reasons for the team’s success. “They’ve spent a lot of time together, and they love the sport.”

Some of that bond pops in the many photos that Ellie posts on Instagram.

Yet another Warsaw student on one of the top clubs at Orlando was setter Daihya Chupp, who helped Team Pineapple 13 Black, based in Angola, tie a Kansas team for third place.

Chupp will be a freshman at Warsaw this fall.

Indiana put the most teams in the 13U open field with eight. There were five from Florida, four from Puerto Rico and three from Michigan, with the rest of the representation spanning nine other states.

“I think it’s the history,” Chandra said of why Indiana is so prevalent in national volleyball settings. “I think it all relates back to Dr. (Don) Shondell (the founder of the Ball State men’s program in 1964, whose three sons are all prominent coaches). I’m not surprised.”