Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier asst. sports editor
Seven games into the season, Berry volleyball has already defeated three nationally ranked teams and taken No.1 Emory University all the way in a tiebreaker set, sending a strong message to their competitors.
Having already overcome No. 11 Ithaca College with a comeback 3-2 victory in New York on Aug. 30, Berry began the Berry Invitational with another fifth-set victory against No. 20 Mary-Hardin Baylor, the team that ended their season last year. Two hours later, they were back out on the court, this time beating No. 14 Christopher Newport 3-1. But more than just either individual results, it was the ability to defeat two tough opponents in a single day that had head coach Caitlyn Moriarty praising her players.
“This weekend was really going to be a test for us because it wasn’t just one mega opponent we were focusing on, it was four,” Moriarty said. “To turn around and have to play another talented team, with different things to focus on, different strengths and a different game plan in order to beat them, I was really proud of our team. At the end of the night, when we were successful in both matches, I was kind of reflecting and just blown away.”
But the team had no time to rest, as they were back at it the following day, defeating Endicott 3-0, before facing off with the reigning champions of DIII volleyball, Emory. After losing the first two sets, Berry found the strength to come back and make it another five-set game, but ultimately lost out 15-13. Getting so close to a comeback victory was painful to take for the team, but Moriarty said they reacted in the best way possible.
“Of course, everyone is devastated and disappointed to taste it so closely, but the cool thing about our team is we’re not measuring success in outcomes,” Moriarty said. “We just want to focus on our growth, and I think when you can focus on the lessons to be learned and things we can improve, those outcomes have a way of working themselves out.”
Part of that growth comes from learning from these kinds of defeats, and Moriarty said they are making the most of the situation.
“The biggest lessons are learned in those moments,” Moriarty said. “Had we finished it out and won, I’m not sure we would have been able to grow in certain areas, so while I would have loved to go back and maybe make a few different changes, I can’t, so rather than dwell on that, I want to look for the lessons to be learned.”
The weekend results saw Berry rise to 4th in the AVCA DIII rankings, the program’s best ever position, but Moriarty said they are not getting ahead of themselves.
“How we do early on in the season doesn’t necessarily define our entire season,” Moriarty said. “We’re just keeping them with the mindset that we’re climbing this mountain little by little and not focusing so much on the peak.”
Part of that mindset comes in the desire to keep testing themselves against the most challenging opponents, which Moriarty said was the reason she wanted to play so many talented teams so early in the season.
“If we’re not trying to be our best selves and grow, then what’s the point?” Moriarty said. “We could go play a bunch of easy teams or mediocre teams, but that’s not really fun and we’re not stretching ourselves and growing ourselves.”
Senior outside hitter Emily Hancock agreed with her coach’s assessment, saying that the team thrives on those challenging matchups.
“I don’t think we’re intimidated, I don’t think we’re scared, I think we’re excited to get to play at a higher level,” Hancock said. “We’re excited to compete against people who are going to challenge us, and I don’t think that we would like to settle for someone who’s maybe lower. I think we would rather play the high intensity games than anything else.”
Mirroring her teammate’s thoughts, senior middle blocker Carson VanCampen pointed out that those kinds of games are also the best way for the team to improve.
“We are hungry for challenge,” VanCampen said. “We don’t like not being challenged. We’re a highly athletic team, but we’re also very smart, so we like having our brains challenged during games, and we like questioning why things are working and why they’re not, and learning more about the game with each game.”
The key to maintaining that mindset then comes from the players’ continued desire for improvement, and Moriarty said that their displays in practice give her no doubts about their commitment.
“I think our players do a really good job of keeping things super competitive in practice and keeping this desire for growth and hunger to get better,” Moriarty said. “We have certain disciplines that we strive to do every day. One of those, for example, is to outwork and outcompete our opponents, and in that regard we want to make sure whether we’re playing No. 1 Emory or the lowest team in our conference that we are still performing and holding ourselves to a certain standard.”
Practice plays a big part for Hancock as well, and she credited the team’s continued improvement with the players’ abilities to push each other to be at their best every single day. She said that this commitment was particularly noticeable in practice last week, on the day the team found out they had cracked the AVCA top 10 for the first time in program history with their then ninth-placed ranking.
“We could have been really complacent in practice the day that we found out we were ninth,” Hancock said. “But instead we had a really hard-driven, hungry, growth mindset in practice, so I think that was really cool. I don’t think we’re settling for anything. I think we want to be at the top.”
For VanCampen, this focused mindset came from the boost the ranking gave them at the time, because it confirmed to the team that they were doing things the right way.
“Being pushed to ninth gives us an edge,” VanCampen said. “But it also reinforces that everything we’re doing and all the effort off the court that we’re putting in has really shown. And there’s so much more room to grow. We know that and see that every day, so I think the sky’s the limit for us.”
The continued growth and early season success mean that Berry now find themselves with a target on their back going forward, according to Moriarty, but she said that it will only help them stay grounded and focused as they keep progressing. And if fans keep turning out in numbers, as they did for the game against Emory, Moriarty says the team will keep thriving.
“It makes a huge difference when we have a campus and a community that’s supporting us,” Moriarty said. “Even in just showing up to games and enjoying yourselves and cheering when you can, even if you don’t know what’s going on, it makes a huge difference. Our team is definitely fueled by people with high energy and excitement, so that’s the biggest thing. It matters when people support us and it makes a huge difference and we appreciate it so much.”
Berry will travel to Springfield, Ohio, on Sept. 13 and 14 to take part in the Wittenberg Fall Classic, before beginning conference play by hosting Oglethorpe on Sept. 18, at 6:30 p.m. in the Cage Center Arena.