Guided by family lessons, Mount de Sales volleyball star Chidinma Onukwugha serves as role model for sisters

Ebere Onukwugha, center, has encouraged a love for the sport of volleyball with her four daughters: Kelenna, 14, Chika, 9, Chioma, 11, and Chidinma, 16.
Ebere Onukwugha, center, has encouraged a love for the sport of volleyball with her four daughters: Kelenna, 14, Chika, 9, Chioma, 11, and Chidinma, 16.(Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Ebere Onukwugha knew she wanted her oldest daughter, Chidinma, to take up a sport. Having grown up as a track and field athlete herself, she knew the values and self-confidence that sports could teach.

“I knew I wanted her to participate in something,” Ebere Onukwugha said. “We tried basketball, but she wasn’t really interested. After that, we tried field hockey. She didn’t like that. We eventually tried volleyball, and she fell in love with the sport.”


This year, Chidinma, a two-time All-Metro player, returns to Mount de Sales as a junior and will be counted on to be a leader for the fourth-ranked Sailors. She and fellow junior All-Metro performer Mary Grace Goyena will lead the two-time Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference champions as they try to win a third straight title.

Onukwugha and her teammates will be adjusting to a new coach this year, as Gary Troy takes over from Pat Dayton. That didn’t stop Mount de Sales last year, as Dayton, then a first-year coach, helped the Sailors repeat as conference champions.


Onukwugha and Goyena are just two of the many standout underclassmen in the Baltimore area, with several teams in The Baltimore Sun’s preseason Top 15 poll led by juniors and sophomores.

As she practices, Onukwugha will not have to look far to find a familiar face. Her younger sister, Kelenna, also made the Mount de Sales varsity team as a freshman this year.

“She’s been exposed to [her older sister] playing for a longer time, so she wanted to play, too,” Ebere said of Kelenna. “Chidinma’s the one who really got everyone else into volleyball.”

The “everyone else” in this case are younger sisters Chioma, and 11 year-old who plays for the Columbia Volleyball Academy’s under-12 team, and 9-year-old Chika, who plays for the Columbia Volleyball Academy’s “pre-team,” known as the Red Hornets.

For Ebere, an Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Health Services Research at the University of Maryland’s School of Pharmacy in Baltimore, the schedules can sometimes be a challenge. Though Ebere handles most of the logistics for the girls, their father Chidi, a lawyer, is sometimes called on for relief.

“It can sometimes be a challenge,” Ebere said. “I have the flexibility with my job that allows me to handle most of this, where he does not. It’s all about what you prioritize. I also rely on some of the other mothers from the volleyball club for help. They have really helped with the younger ones.”

As a junior, Chidinma is beginning to draw interest from college coaches. Like everything else, the recruiting process will be an education for Ebere, who might have to go through it three more times.

“I’m thrilled that [Chidinma] has found a passion with volleyball,” Ebere said. “She very much wants to play at the college level, and I want that for her, too. I’ve learned a lot about how this works through her journey. I think we’ve both learned together. I want her to stay humble, but to be proud of what she’s accomplished.”

Ebere also will need to assume a different role with Kelenna, who many club coaches say could be the best of the group.

“She has a good example to follow in her older sister, but she has a different set of challenges," Ebere said of Kelenna. "I tell her to ‘be the best version of herself,’ and to set her own course.”

For Chidinma, she realizes the work her mother has done for her and her sisters, and she is grateful.

“Whenever I doubt myself, she keeps pushing me,” Chidinma said. “She tells me I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, and she knows the right thing to say.”


Although Chidinma said she fells pressure playing for such a good team, there is something else that weighs on her.

“Being the oldest kid, I feel the pressure to be a good role model for [my sisters]," she said. "They do come to me when they have trouble. It can be tough on me, but I think it makes me a better player.”

Sometimes, even the Onukwugha family can experience volleyball overload.

“We’ll go on a family trip, and we’ll bring a volleyball,” Chidinma said. “Sometimes I will say to the others ‘Do you wanna hit?’ and they tell me, ‘No.’ I guess they need a break.”

Still, she says she is excited to play with her sister on the Mount de Sales team this season.

“Oh, for sure. I think we feed off each other,” Chidinma said. “We’ve played on the same club team, and that was really fun. She’s a sassy person, and she likes to go for the ball, so I’m really pumped up about it.”

For Ebere, it will also be fun seeing two of her daughters play at the high school level for the Sailors.

“I’m really excited, and I’m excited for the girls. It’s not always that you get to see them play on the same team,” Ebere said. “I told Chidinma to enjoy it, because it’s very special.”

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