VOLLEYBALL: Bulldogs shift focus to skill work, cohesion and academics
The Yale volleyball team has had just five days of regular practice with nets and balls. With 11 out of their total 14 players, the Bulldogs have spent the semester focusing on individual work, team bonding and academic workload.
Despite altered practices and phase shift adjustments, the Yale volleyball team has been able to work on individual skill work, physical strength and team cohesivity this semester.
Volleyball, a team sport that requires some in-person contact, coaches and players have had to innovate to adhere to current public health guidelines and provide an effective yet safe form of practice and conditioning. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated practices, Erin Appleman, head coach for the past 18 years, has committed herself to creating a successful season, both physically and academically, even without competition.
“This year has been obviously completely different,” Appleman said. “You just have to be flexible and … be patient and learn that it’s a bigger picture than what is happening in front of you.”
Out of the 14-player roster, 11 players on the volleyball team are in New Haven and enrolled, including one who is currently recovering from an injury. With no players missing from the team due to a leave of absence and only the sophomores off campus this fall, the team has been able to get a decent feel for future seasons.
Due to the unique nature of the 2020 season, Appleman explained that without the packed schedule of fall competition, she is limiting the required conditioning work for her team. This allows team members to concentrate on their studies as the semester draws to a close.
“Many of them took extra classes, took harder classes this semester, so we want to make sure that their academics are getting the time that they need,” Appleman said. “I think that [there will] be a different kind of philosophy in the spring than it necessarily was in this fall.”
With three first years joining the team for its 2020 season, the team has made an added effort to welcome and incorporate them into their tight-knit community. Kiki Spain ’21, captain and middle blocker, expressed her excitement to meet and play with her new team members.
“It was really fun to get to play volleyball for a while there and see the skills of the first years and kind of feel the future of the program,” Spain said. “The best part about being on this team is my teammates for me [and] it just reminded me … how much of the sport really just brings me joy, just from being in Payne Whitney with my friends.”
During Phase 0 for Yale varsity athletics, the Bulldogs did workouts and bodyweight work on their own. While in Phase I, they were able to go to the gym in two separate groups for practice, according to Renee Shultz ’22, the only setter on the team this season.
Players were required to follow social distancing protocols and wear masks while focusing their practice of non-contact volleyball through footwork and floor movements without any equipment.
“So there’s no net, no ball [and] we were still just doing conditioning, doing blocking movements, defensive movements,” Shultz said. “Even just that small amount of time was just great to … get to play together again, especially with the new first years … and really, like incorporate them more into the team.”
During the six-day length of Phase II, all 10 players in the gym were able to play, with equipment and volleyballs, according to Spain.
The five practices during which Yale volleyball was able to participate in sport-specific activities during Phase II was “fantastic,” Appleman said. The Bulldogs were able to practice with all of their players in the maximum capacity that any of the three phases would permit. This sparked Appleman’s excitement for future practices with fewer restrictions.
“Everybody’s gonna be so excited to get in the gym and to work hard and to reach some of the goals that we want to accomplish,” Appleman said. “We won the conference the last three years, so, you know, we want to go right back into it with that kind of intensity.”
In past seasons, the Yale volleyball team would practice four days a week in the gym for around two hours and compete in two games per weekend, except when playing Brown University, Yale’s travel partner, Spain said. Since Yale and Brown are geographically close to one another, they travel to the same pair of Ivy League schools each weekend and alternate which school they play.
Regarding competition, Spain explained that the Bulldogs would face nearly every team in the Ivy League twice during a normal year, and at this point in the year, their season would be winding down before championship games. The NCAA tournament, for which the Blue and White last received a ticket in 2018, usually starts the first weekend of December.
When reflecting on the strengths of the volleyball team this year, Appleman, Spain and Shultz remarked on the cohesion of the team and their great ability to bond, band together and support each other.
Shultz mentioned that the upperclassmen have greatly enjoyed welcoming the first years and reconnecting with their old teammates. Each is approaching the season with positivity and an appreciation of their ability to practice.
“There’s still so much positivity … purely because we get to spend time with each other again,” Shultz said. “It’s definitely different, but we still appreciate the time we have.”
Although their goals for this season have shifted away from competition and toward practice, both coaches and players hope for a return to a “normal” season with competition.
Appleman specifically expressed her pride in this year’s team and her gratitude toward their seniors for their leadership and constant support through a constantly changing season.
“I think the team as a whole has done a phenomenal job,” Appleman said. “Every opportunity that I’ve had to work with them, they have gone at it 100 percent. They have tackled this journey of being flexible with the utmost class and pride of being a Yale student-athlete that I could expect.”
Over the past 16 years, the Yale volleyball team has made seven NCAA tournament appearances and won 10 Ivy League titles.
Amelia Lower | firstname.lastname@example.org