Volleyball: Trip abroad helped Cats become ‘One’

Sarah Kuta

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File photo by Ray Whitehouse

The last thing junior setter Elyse Glab expected to hear 5,000 miles from home after 20 hours of travel was the Northwestern fight song.

NU traveled to Italy last March to play and watch international volleyball. During the team’s first full day in Europe, it watched Italian A-1 professional teams Novaro and Pesaro. Before the game, the Wildcats were surprised to hear their own “Go U Northwestern” played over the loudspeaker.

“We had just gotten off the plane and I was like ‘Where are we?'” Glab said. “Once we figured out what was happening we all got really excited and started clapping. The other people in the stands were cheering for us, too.”

The team spent the first three days of its 10-day trip sightseeing and practicing outside of Milan. After adjusting to their surroundings, the Cats took on the Novaro Youth National team, winning four out of five games.

Though NU had to acclimate to international regulations, the team also had to tweak its playing style to better match the slow tempo and aggressive serving style of its first Italian competitors.

“They set high balls and their hitters do all the work,” Glab said. “They jump high and take big swings at the ball. They rely way more on the power and placement of their hit because they’re not running fast stuff.”

Junior middle blocker Naomi Johnson said the team learned firsthand in Italy what it was like to be on the receiving end of an aggressive serve.

The Cats were reminded that strong serving can put a defense on its heels, and integrated this weapon into their arsenal, using it to press No. 1 Penn State’s dominant offense last weekend.

“If we don’t serve aggressive, they have so many different offensive options, that we really don’t have a chance on defense,” Johnson said. “One of our game plans was to serve aggressive so they didn’t have as many of those options.”

Coach Keylor Chan added that serving is not just a way to get the ball in play, but a serious weapon that can be used to score points and get teams out of their system.

The team also learned to play with six substitutions per game, as opposed to the 12 that are allowed in American volleyball. This forced players to work through their struggles during the course of a match instead of refocusing outside the game before reentering play.

“We learned to be a little more versatile as a team because there weren’t a lot of options,” Johnson said. “We really had to learn on the fly and learn how to adjust.”

After Milan, the Cats traveled to Rome and checked in to the Olympic Training Center before playing the Italian Youth National Team. The team visited the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum before journeying to Florence and Venice.

The Cats marveled at Michelangelo’s “David” in Florence and navigated the canals of Venice. In their free time, the players said they discussed “Gossip Girl” with the locals, shopped, ate gelato and surveyed the high-fashion of the native Italians – all in their sweatpants.

For Johnson, playing against international teams helped the Cats gain closure on a rough season and start the summer with a fresh perspective, making NU a fortified, cohesive unit.

“We were playing loose and playing well together,” Johnson said. “Coming off a hard season and being able to play well and be relaxed was really meaningful. Our motto this year is ‘One’- one team, one goal. It helped bond us to become one.”

Chan said he hoped Italy would allow his team to view volleyball on a world scope. The team internalized and incorporated differences of international playing style into its own game.

“There was a lot more flow and rhythm to the game,” Chan said. “They improvise really well. It was a more organic way of looking at volleyball.”

These changes have been part of the Cats’ turnaround this season. After going just 8-23 last year, NU has already surpassed its win total with nine victories through its first 14 matches.

The international games also demonstrated how to adjust quickly to new styles and situations, which is a vital skill when the Cats play two different teams in one weekend.

“The more opportunities you expose yourself to, the less surprised you’re going to be at what you see,” Chan said. “That prepares you mentally and physically to cope with things on a daily basis – in volleyball or in your life.”

Both Johnson and Glab said they agreed that the trip helped the team bond and created more on-court charisma and conviction. The Cats demonstrated this early in the season, winning three of their first four tournaments.

However, NU struggled in its first Big Ten action last weekend. The team failed to win a set against both No. 1 Penn State and Ohio State.

Despite opening the conference season on a sour note, the trip abroad taught the Cats they can start fresh the next day.

“We learned on this trip that the sun will always rise tomorrow regardless of what happens the day you play,” Chan said. “Whether you win or lose, you wake up tomorrow and get better at what you do.”

Watching professionals play served as a wake-up call for the team, revitalizing its sense of pride in the game and reestablishing its passion in the sport.

“These women are 35 years old; volleyball doesn’t exactly feel good to them,” Chan said. “But they’re doing it because they truly love the game. They wouldn’t do it otherwise. That really rubbed off on the girls.”

Chan and the Cats returned to Evanston with a renewed appreciation for the game, literally connected by players across the globe.

“We realized that volleyball is bigger than Northwestern,” Chan said. “It’s refreshing to be reminded of why we do this.”