W. Volleyball: Championship aspirations

Women’s volleyball captain Ally Mendenhall ’09 sat down with the News to talk about her team’s dazzling opening weekend, upcoming tournament prospects and where the team is headed this season. Last year, Yale went 16-10 in the regular season, and Mendenhall was the only player to appear in all 91 games of the 2007-’08 season.

Q: Your online bio says you’re from Lincoln, Neb. I’m from the Midwest as well, and people always ask me if I find the East Coast to be a culture shock. What do you think?

A: I would say it’s different, but I don’t necessarily think it was a culture shock. It’s more fast-paced, and people don’t always say they’re sorry or hold the door open. In Nebraska they always do that. But I think Yale is a very friendly community, and so in that aspect don’t think it’s been that much of a culture shock.

Q: I know this is a broad question, but what are you hoping to accomplish as captain this year?

A: Our ultimate goal is to win in the Ivy League. And we want to get better every game we play — that’s the short-term goal. It’s like, “This game in front of us is important in terms of reaching that ultimate goal.” We want to remain focused, we want to play our best right now, and if we do those things, that long-term goal is more attainable.

Q: When did you start playing volleyball? What got you into the sport?

A: I don’t know … I started playing organized volleyball when I was 10, I think. My mom is a volleyball coach, so from the age of four I’ve been the daughter with the ball in her hand just waiting to play. After grade school I’d go to her practices. I’m an only child, and all her players were kind of my big sisters. I looked up to them and immediately developed a passion for the game. It was really a fun environment to grow up in.

Q: Were you always a setter?

A: No. I’ve pretty much played every position at some point in time. That’s not very uncommon in volleyball. Freshman and sophomore years of high school, I played outside. I’m not very tall, at least by volleyball standards. And then it just ended up that the team needed a setter.

Setting’s a really cool position, and I immediately fell in love with it. I’d done it before, but I’d always focused on playing outside. Once I really started setting, it became something I wanted to do more of. Setting is sort of overlooked, especially at a younger age — it’s all about who’s getting the kill. But as you get to more competitive levels, there’s more strategy involved and more possible offenses.

Q: Your bio says you were a nine-time track-and-field medalist and you received an all-state honorable mention in basketball. What events did you run in track?

A: I did the sprints — the 100, 200, 400, and then they’d stick me in the 4×100 and 4×400 relays as well. Even then I always found the relays to be the best events. I’ve always really enjoyed the team concept of athletics.

Q: Track’s killer, isn’t it?

A: Track’s so interesting. I would get nervous days before. It was an irrational nervousness, and I’m really glad I ran track, because in that sport it’s just you and a stopwatch. It’s all about how well you can perform on that given day. So I learned a lot about taking care of my body and getting the right amount of sleep – you can really tell how you’re doing because it’s just you and that stopwatch. I learned a lot about discipline through running track. I’m glad I did it.

Q: But you don’t run anymore. So how did you make the decision between the two?

A: I grew up playing volleyball. I was definitely more passionate about the game, and my mom’s interest in volleyball was what I picked up just by being around it. The team dynamic is like no other. Putting six people on the floor together in 300 square feet — it’s cool to figure out how you work best with people, the flow of the game and all the different strategies. The question between track and volleyball, that wasn’t really ever a question — it was whether I’d enjoy doing track as well as volleyball, and I decided four years in high school was enough.

Q Out of curiosity, did you watch the Olympics this year? The volleyball teams…

A I was psyched at all the coverage. I think beach volleyball helped get a lot of people watching the sport. Beach was aired at primetime, and the men’s and women’s teams both did really well. I think people don’t realize until they actually watch it how much fun it is. So, I’m excited about the future of volleyball because people are just starting to realize how fun it is to watch.

Q: Okay, so let’s talk about the Yale Invitational. You swept the first match against Boston College, 3-0, and you swept the next two against Colgate and Hofstra as well. Were you expecting that strong a beginning to the season, or did you think it’d be tougher than it was?

A: We expected to play really well this year. We worked really hard in the offseason and set the bar high in the spring. We knew we’d come out playing well and that we’d do what we could to prepare. In the preseason, you don’t know as much about the opposing team, and so you just go into it saying you’re going to play hard, do as well as you can and improve every game. That’s the mindset we had going in. Like I said before, we were hungry, we were ready to play. We hadn’t seen anything but our teammates on the other side of the net, so it was cool to see different faces and different styles of play. I think overall we were pleased with how we did.

Q: What do you think it was that got the team to that victory? I mean, was it just overall strength, or cohesion, or do you do one thing in particular really well that helped you this weekend?

A: We pass very well. When you pass well, that opens up a lot of options offensively, and this year, we have and can take advantage of those options. We have a transfer from Cal [Cat Dailey ’10], and being able to pass and getting better since last year helped us a lot this weekend. We also just had a very composed group. It was cool to see because that’s something that comes from being familiar with each other and being able to trust each other, so seeing that so early on in the season was great. When it was 23-24 last weekend, we didn’t just say, “Oh, it’s okay if we didn’t win this game” — instead we made it 25-24. There was that sense of urgency and trust early on.

Q: You mentioned transfer students. How are your transfer players and the freshmen fitting into the roster? Are they part of that cohesive team feeling already?

A: Yeah, definitely. We have a very cohesive unit on court and off the court. There are 18 people on the team and only six on the court at once, but in practice we’re very competitive, and that’s made everyone play better. The freshmen have definitely been able to play better. And Cat’s a transfer from Cal, which is a perennial powerhouse, and she’s fit in well. It’s never something we’ve struggled with, but every year it’s an issue and this year we’ve melded well into this very cohesive group.

Q: On a kind of random note, I saw in a different interview that there was a rule change from 30-point games to 25-point games.

A: I like the 25-point game a little bit more. I think that it causes you to focus on the first part of the game more, and you have to come out and play right away. You don’t have time to play catch-up, whereas in a game of 30, momentum can swing back and forth for a long time. It makes the games more focused, it makes every point worth a little bit more.

Q: And that’s good for your team?

A: Oh yeah, definitely. I think originally they did it to make volleyball a little more fan-friendly. They said there was this lull from the 18th point to the 24th, and that sense of urgency only happened at 25 when the game started finally pushing to 30.

Q: So to talk about next weekend, do you think the tournament this past weekend will be enough of a jump-start, seeing as you’ll be going up against Penn State, the No. 1-ranked team in the U.S.?

A: We got a really good look at different styles of play and played teams that challenged us, yet gained confidence because we beat all three of them. Those things will serve us well when we go to Penn State. It’s going to be a fun environment — you don’t get this opportunity all the time to play the No. 1 team, and it’ll be some fun volleyball for what’s only the second week of play. Just like any other game, we’ll take it point by point and continue to get better as the game goes along, and those will be our goals for the games this weekend.

Q: You talked about different styles of play before. Do you have any idea what style you can expect from Penn State?

A: They’ll be a very physical, powerful team. They won the national championship last year and didn’t lose a lot of starters … I don’t even know if they lost one. So it’ll be very competitive. At the same time, it’ll be great for us to see that level of play and be able to try and match it. It’ll be a mental game and a physical game as well. It may be that they make a great kill, but then we can come back and score the next point. That bouncing back will be a great experience for our team as well.

Q: Does the team have any rituals or traditions?

A: I’m trying to think … We try to do the same thing every game day. For me, it’s a pre-game meal at 3:30, and then I put my iPod in and walk to Willoughby’s. That’s where I love to get a good cup of coffee and take a relaxing time, think about the game, maybe visualize things in my head, and then I walk back to the gym and get psyched up.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment or memory from Yale volleyball to share? It doesn’t have to be from this year.

A I’m trying to think which one. I would say I’ve been very happy with the success we’ve had. One of my favorite moments was when we beat Dartmouth at home in five games [in October 2007]. We sort of had a slip early on. They played very well the first time we played them and we actually lost 3-0. We were caught off guard and didn’t expect that to happen. It was a low point in the season.

And then when they came to our place, we beat them in five. It wasn’t necessarily a game where we played the best as a unit, but we found a way to win, and it was one of those games where you could feel the energy on the court. We wanted something so badly. And also, it was a five-game match and those are always exciting, to make that step up in that fifth game.

Q: What are your hopes for this season as a whole? This is your senior year, so when you look back on this season, what do you want to say? “This year was amazing because…”?

A: Something I’ve tried to focus on is enjoying every moment. I mean, we have great chemistry this year, a very cohesive unit. I feel privileged to be part of Yale volleyball and part of a great group of girls in the program. Sometimes, it’s easy to be upset about a bad practice, and there’s always little things, but I’m trying to see the bigger picture. I try to take a step back and say, “You’ve been playing 11 years because you love it, and it’s something you really enjoy. It’s a team aspect you probably will never have again in your life,” so doing as well as I can, enjoying every moment — that’s what I’m looking for.

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