Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
As they prepare for the new season, Berry volleyball players and staff are determined to make the most of the opportunities they get. Though this unusual season will present new challenges, they are excited to finally return to competitive play.
Head coach Caitlyn Moriarty said that, after practicing all of last fall, players are now raring to go.
“We’re so ready to just play somebody,” Moriarty said. “We’ve been practicing all fall and then even this semester they started practices literally the day they got back. It’s a long kind of preseason, so to speak, but we wanted to make sure that our players stayed active over winter break and so we wanted to pick back right up where we left off when we sent them home. That’s why we didn’t want to wait a couple weeks to get going, we wanted to start day one. But after practicing for about five weeks, you’re ready to play somebody else and put everything that you’ve been working on to the test. So they are so excited, the outlook looks really good and we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to get in some games.”
For senior setter Cyrena Bedoian, this desire from the players has translated to their performances in practice, something she said would help the team this season.
“The team is looking really, really good,” Bedoian said. “I think everyone has been bringing their best athletic ability every single day. I just feel like everyone’s been pushing themselves to their max and I also feel like every single person has been so authentically themselves as a teammate, and that’s just bonded our team chemistry so much, so that’s helpful on the court as well.”
Bedoian said she was also happy to see the discipline and responsibility her teammates have shown in the absence of Moriarty, who is currently on maternity leave. Though assistant coach JT Oates is temporarily in charge of practices and remains available to the players, Bedoian said they have developed self-sufficiency that will help them moving forward.
Moriarty, who welcomed her newborn daughter a little over a month ago, said she would slowly be working her way back into the fold with the season looming. Having already had a baby once before, she said she was finding the experience easier to navigate and has still remained in regular contact with her players and assistant.
“I think maybe in a normal desk job you are completely removed from work, but my job doesn’t feel like a job, it’s very relational with my players in a normal setting, so it would be kind of weird if I just completely went M.I.A. for six or eight weeks,” Moriarty said. “So because I have good foundational relationships with all of my players and many people in the athletic department, those continue, you don’t just cut those off, and so I’m definitely still chatting with them, every day different ones. I’m trying to check in on not just the volleyball stuff, but how they’re doing in school and in life and all those kinds of things.”
Sophomore Jen Aten, outside hitter and defensive specialist, said both head and assistant coach had been doing a great job given the circumstances.
“I think our assistant coach has been doing a really good job of taking over the role of stepping in place of Caitlyn while she’s been on maternity leave, but also Caitlyn has been doing a really good job of, while she’s been on maternity leave, still coming to practices occasionally,” Aten said. “She’s texting us and checking in to make sure that we’re all doing good and so she’s doing really, really well for not being on campus 24/7 like she usually is.”
Aten also said that everyone was handling the COVID-19 situation well now that they had a semester to get used to it.
“As of right now, I would say COVID isn’t really hindering our preparation at all,” Aten said. “I think that we’ve all adapted and become flexible in learning how to deal with it. I know, back in the fall, it was a little difficult to adjust, but now it’s just become the new norm and we’re working with what we get. I think we’re all really glad and grateful to still be able to have practices and weights and just be around each other.”
One way COVID-19 is still impacting the season, however, is in the competition’s setup. While the team would usually play each opponent at two different points in the season, once at home and once on the road, this season will see them face off in a double-header format to reduce travel. As a result, the team will be playing back-to-back games against the same opponent in a single day, providing an additional test of both their physical and mental abilities.
Moriarty said this would drastically change how they have to approach these games.
“It’s going to look completely different,” Moriarty said. “It’s not unusual to have multiple games in a weekend for volleyball, but to play a double-header back-to-back could potentially be six hours straight of volleyball. That’s a lot mentally and then obviously physically too, so for certain positions in volleyball you have to train your body to be able to jump at the same height after six hours of playing or even communicate at the same level once fatigue has set in.”
To prepare for this, Bedoian said the coaches had placed an additional emphasis on physical fitness in practice.
“We are working on cardio and endurance quite a bit, competing a lot,” Bedoian said. “With being used to only playing one game per day, where you’re all in for that one game, we’re figuring out ways to really bring the best out of each player. That way we can reward a lot of people on the court to get playing time.”
Moriarty also said the second game could prove difficult if they were to lose the first, not only because they would have to quickly get over the defeat and face the same opponents a second time, but because it gives them less time to work out what went wrong.
“Why I like our double round-robin schedule that we normally have is that sometimes a player might be off physically or mentally or even injured and you get to play that team down the road again and get a second shot at them, and you can make adjustments,” Moriarty said. “Now we’ll have to make a lot of in game adjustments, we’ll have to do a lot of scouting prior and educating our players, but we do a lot of things in our practice gym to teach our players what you are looking for and what trends you see and why we do what we do and really try to have that cerebral standpoint for them and teach them the volleyball IQ piece. So I’m optimistic that because we normally operate that way we’ll be able to make changes pretty fast on the fly during a timeout or between the matches if we need to, and they understand what we’re talking about and the why behind it.”
It is not all negatives though, as Bedoian said these circumstances could be a valuable opportunity for players to develop mental resilience, especially for those who will be returning next year.
“It’s going to build a lot of mental toughness this year, which I think will be incredible for them moving into future seasons, to be able to have that preparation so early,” Bedoian said. “I think it’s going to work on our quick bounce-back and seeing how flexible we can be, because say we do lose a game, working on that quick release of just forgetting that loss and continuing moving on and figuring out what we mean next, it’ll build mental toughness for sure.”
Additionally, Moriarty and Bedoian both said that having only one opponent per week would help preparations, as it allows them to focus their scouting on a single opponent.
Finding these silver linings and focusing on positives has been another important aspect of preparations for the team as well, as players remain all too aware of the potential setbacks COVID-19 could still cause. As a senior, Bedoian said this knowledge has pushed her to truly enjoy all the little moments.
“It’s bittersweet,” Bedoian said. “I’m trying to soak up every little moment; I’m trying to soak up like random d-hall dinners that we have together and just the funny things that happen at practice and even the battle moments that we have at practice. I’m trying to enjoy each one because it’s going so fast and you know with COVID that you have no idea if we will even be able to practice tomorrow and we have no idea when the season might be halted for a month or for a couple weeks, so I’m truly just enjoying the moment and cherishing every second I get with Berry volleyball before I’m an alumni.”
Aten said that in this pursuit of positivity, the team had come up with a specific plan to try and still have a perfect season.
“We all wrote on ping pong balls at the beginning of the fall, different words or phrases that would create the perfect season,” Aten said. “So every single day at practice we pull a ping pong ball and the word could be ‘hustle’ or ‘joy’ or something like that, and we’ll try and work hard on that in practice and then just really channel it all throughout the week. So that’s been a big objective in trying to still have the perfect season and to control the controllables even if there’s COVID stuff that happens. And in turn I think that will benefit us physically on the court with our team chemistry and it’ll give us the ability and put us in positions where we can win.”
And though Moriarty agreed that the main goal is simply to get to play as many games as possible, she said that did not mean the team did not still have hopes of success as well.
“I think the main objective and the main goal is just to get some matches in for our seniors, so just doing everything we can to stay healthy and protect our bubble and just give them their senior season,” Moriarty said. “Big picture, our players have been working so hard all fall, putting in a lot of work on the court and off the court, so I hope that they, and I’m positive that they, will reap all the fruits of their labor. I think we’ll find a lot of success on the volleyball court, but I know that comes from all of the hard work that they’ve been doing off the court that nobody sees or hears about and so I’m looking forward to this team, this new team, coming together and hopefully defending our SAA title.”
Volleyball will open its season with a trip to Millsaps College on March 7, before hosting Hendrix College in its home opener on March 13 at 11 a.m. in the Cage Center Arena.