By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Jun 19, 2014 at 1:05 PM

Before she volleyed ping pong balls with Indy Car drivers at Evolution Milwaukee, we caught up with Eau Claire native and pro volleyball player Molly Menard, who has also co-founded the National Volleyball League.

Menard, the younger sister of NASCAR driver Paul, brings the NVL to State Fair Park as part of the Milwaukee Indy Fest race weekend on Aug. 16-17. So how did …

Molly Menard: How did a girl from Wisconsin get to California?

OMC: We know that can happen! Why did you want to start a pro volleyball league?

MM: There’s really no pipeline (for pro volleyball). I had a couple opportunities to play overseas professionally, but I didn’t want to go overseas – I wanted to play in the U.S. Probably one of the reasons I stayed in my hometown (for college) is I wanted to play for people in my city. There really wasn’t any pipeline. That’s why I’m doing this business.

I’m very passionate about getting more opportunities for high school and college girls to play professionally and to get paid to do the sport that they love. Now there’s a better pipeline for it, especially for sand volleyball, because girls can now get scholarships in college to go play. But they need to have that professional platform to play on. That’s the most important thing. Because otherwise, I’m just going to go work after college? I tried that and it’s not very fun – I’m an athlete and I wanted to keep competing!

OMC: Why bring your league to Indy Fest weekend?

MM: The National Volleyball League likes to partner with other events. We realize that people don’t just want to come watch volleyball. And so, we’ve been to great places – we were on the infield of the Preakness horse race, we’ve been at water parks. We really like to have a fun event for our fans and so this is a great way to tie it all together. Plus, I’m a huge auto-racing fan so it works for me!

OMC: Is this the first auto race you’ve partnered with?

MM: Yeah – I’m very excited. It’ll be on Saturday, which is when we’re holding the majority of our matches. We’ll do the finals right before the race on Sunday, but we’re going to be playing during practice and all that.

OMC: That should be a different environment than volleyball players are used to.

MM: It should be interesting! We’re going to be playing in big headphones! It’ll be an extra challenge but we’ll have fun with it.

OMC: Do your Wisconsin ties have anything to do with wanting to make Milwaukee Indy Fest the first auto race you partnered with?

MM: For sure. We really wanted to do an event in Wisconsin, absolutely. We did our first Midwest event last year in Cincinnati and it was great. The fans are so great out in the Midwest because I think they’re hungrier and more loyal to all the sports. So, we’re really excited to come here. I’ve known the Andretti (Motorsports) group for a long time and it was a natural fit.

OMC: What was your path post-high school at Eau Claire Memorial?

MM: The Old Abes! I went to UW-Eau Claire so I stayed in my hometown for 23 years, and then I finally branched out and I lived in Indianapolis for a while – it’s one of my favorite cities in the world – and then I went to California to play volleyball. I played basketball and volleyball at UW-Eau Claire.

OMC: Are you still an active player?

MM: I play, yeah.

OMC: Is that a challenge, to balance playing, running a league, and also your responsibilities with Menards?

MM: Definitely. The best comparison I’ve heard is running a business, or starting a business, is like having a kid. Obviously it’s not as hard, and I don’t have any kids, but the first and second years you’re up all the time and it takes so much energy, but we’re in our fourth year now and the baby is starting to walk on its own. I have a really great team around me and it allows me to focus just on playing during those weekends and kind of away from that, I can get more into the higher level stuff, like what I need to do from an overall strategy and what I need to do.

OMC: Because starting, and then trying to run, a niche-sport can be difficult – has it been important to try and partner with bigger, more established entities like Indy Fest?

MM: Definitely. To get involved with another sport to boost your own brand is great. It was daunting to start this league in a sport that had gone bankrupt so many times, but really that was kind of the challenge and opportunity that we wanted. We wanted to create a league that is sustainable. We’re a league by the players and for the players, so we’re going to be around for a really long time. I think anybody who starts their own business has to be a little crazy, honestly! You’ve got to be a little nuts.

OMC: That said, has there been a benefit that you come from a family that has started and run a very successful retail business but has also experienced success in sports?

MM: Definitely, and in so many ways. The business training from my dad (John), obviously is great. He hasn’t helped me financially with the league – but just from his advice and all of that has been great. And just growing up around auto racing gave me a great background in sports marketing, obviously knowing how I’m going to sponsor (events), how partners think and how to run an event.

Then finally just with Paul being one of the top NASCAR drivers in the U.S., he’s a huge inspiration for me. He works his butt off to do that and he’s a perfect example of how success doesn’t just come easy because you have a great opportunity, you have to work to do it and devote yourself 150 percent to what you’re doing.

OMC: What are you expectations for the NVL at Indy Fest now that it moved off Father’s Day weekend to the end of the State Fair?

MM: I think it’s going to be huge for our league and the event in general. I think people get really excited about the State Fair and having it right at the end of that. I don’t think it’s anything that people are going to get tired, I think it’s just going to increase awareness of the event and people are going to say hey, let’s go do Indy car racing, let’s go do volleyball now. It’s just an awesome thing to do in the summer in Wisconsin. The summers are so short that really you want to pack it in, right?

OMC: And there is a huge market for sand volleyball here, just by looking at the bar leagues and what goes on at Bradford Beach.

MM: The Midwest is so huge for volleyball but you wouldn't think it. Ohio is actually the fourth biggest region for volleyball behind California, Florida and Texas. So you have that. You have the junior national championships held in Wisconsin for sand. And since summers are shorter there's just so much great summer fans here and they crave that California lifestyle without having to be in California, but they want the sun and the fun and all that. It's natural for there to be a lot of volleyball out here.

OMC: Is there anything about the NVL people should know about as they get ready for Indy Fest weekend?

MM: I always try to think of a good way to say this – we always say we’re ‘family sexy’ – a lot of people think of beach volleyball and its skimpy bikinis and yeah that’s part of it, but it’s really a family thing. It’s a fun thing for kids to come out and do.

We have a huge junior’s program that we’re really proud of called the NVL & ROX Beach Series and that’s a grass roots junior program where we help indoor clubs learn how to put on sand programs, and it all leads into a huge juniors championship at our beach volleyball academy we just opened up at the Club Med academies in Port St. Lucie (Fla.) So we’re really building the youth part of it and therefore it really is a family attraction. Obviously guys love it, too.

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.