Purdue’s women’s volleyball coach Dave Shondell took his team to Europe this past May to compete against the Czech Junior National Team, the Croatian and Israeli national teams, as well as two professional Italian teams in preparation for what will surely prove to be a tough Big Ten schedule. They also went to bond and to talk.
“At every dinner none of us had our phones so it was so cool to sit and communicate with each other and be in the moment,” said Purdue fifth-year senior Rachel Davis.
“And that’s something that our generation is losing, being so plugged into technology and on our phones. It was so cool to talk and communicate and get to know each other better and laugh together.”
As anyone who works with young people will recognize, they really are always on their cell phones, doesn’t matter whether it’s a women’s college volleyball team or a young girls’ club team.
So maybe not having an international data plan will be the edge Purdue needs in a Big Ten Conference in which being really good is oftentimes not good enough.
To wit: Last year, Purdue finished 23-11 overall, 12-8 in the league. But despite sweeping Michigan State, which made it to the NCAA Tournament round of eight, and Michigan, which went to the final four by beating – who else? – Michigan State; splitting with Ohio State; and losing in five at Nebraska, the Boilermakers also lost matches to the last two teams in the Big Ten, Indiana and Iowa.
And in the end: A fifth-place finish and a round-of-16 ouster from the NCAA Tournament from – who else? – another Big Ten opponent, Minnesota.
Life in the Big Ten is tough.
“It’s funny. We’re going to have a really good team this year,” said 11th-year head coach Shondell. “We’re going to be a top-20 team in the country. And we’re picked anywhere from seventh to ninth place [in the Big Ten].”
Purdue actually came in at No. 16 in the first AVCA poll of the season.
“There is just no separation,” said Davis, a setter from Kalamazoo, Mich. “Every team is great and every team can beat you on any given night. And it’s going to be a good conference again this year.”
Anyway, about that data plan. Purdue, like many Division I teams did this past spring, took an international trip. In their case, the Boilermakers played six matches in 13 days, visiting five countries: the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, and France. And Shondell had the advantage of bringing the entire team except for one incoming freshman and sophomore middle Kaisley Fisher who tore her ACL in the spring.
“Team chemistry, especially in women’s volleyball, is crucial,” said libero Carly Cramer, one of four fifth-year seniors on the team. “And we didn’t have our phones with us.
“In this day and age, everybody has a phone and usually when you’re sitting around everybody is on the phone. Nobody was on Twitter or Instagram. That really helped.
“We had fun, we enjoyed each other’s company, we laughed.”
Davis said simply, “It made us so close.”
This time last year, Purdue brought in a huge freshman class. Now those six players – three sophomores and three redshirt freshmen – have a year and that trip on their resume.
“It’s not that we weren’t close before, but we just hadn’t had an opportunity to spend that much time to bond as a team and by going to Europe we were able to play together so much,” Davis said. “Traveling together and doing things together was really good, but I think playing together was the most important. Everyone got comfortable playing in different positions and it was good to get a lot of contacts and develop a lot of chemistry on the court.”
Shondell credits all those seniors.
“It’s a real comfortable thing to have that kind of leadership,” Shondell said. “And they’re not just normal student-athletes. These are the best of the best. They’re great leaders, they’re full of high character, they compete, they’re good people. I’m sure there a lot of coaches who have seniors come through and look forward to them leaving. That’s not the case with these guys. I wish this group could stay forever, they’ve brought so much to our program.”
All that being said, Purdue first task this season will be to fill the hole left by outside hitter Ariel Turner, a two-time All-American who ranked 13th nationally in kills per set (4.48) and led the Boilers in kills in 30 of their matches last season.
“It’s going to be different,” said Davis, the team’s setter for the third consecutive season. “She was a huge part of the offense and obviously a great outside hitter, but [our offense] is going to be quicker with a faster-paced tempo and there are going to be a lot more options and a lot more spread out.
“We have so many good hitters that on any given night it could be anybody’s night.”
Purdue also lost 6’3” middle Anna Drewry, “but the cupboard’s not bare,” Shondell said.
“We have a lot of young players who do a lot of things really well.”
Three players are vying for the outside hitter spots, 6’2” senior Catherine Rebarchak from Mobile, Ala., 6’2” senior Katie Griffin from Avon, Ind., and Sam Epenesa, a 6’0’ sophomore from Edwardsville, Ill.
“All three can start in the Big Ten, so I’m not worried about it,” Shondell said. “It’s just a matter of which two are going to get out there and absorb some of those swings that Turner had.”
Fisher, the 6’3” sophomore from Plainfield, Ill., who tore her ACL not only didn’t make the Europe trip, but will miss this season.
Accordingly, one middle will be 6’1” junior KiKi Jones from Fishers, Ind., and the other Faye Adelaja, a 6’1” redshirt freshman from Baton Rouge. There are no other middles on the roster, so that is a concern.
Annie Drews, a 6’4” lefty sophomore from Elkhart, Ind., who Shondell said touches 10’6”, will be at right side.
The setter is Davis, but 6’1” junior Val Nichol, who touches 10’5”, might see some action at either setter or even outside hitter, where she’s seen playing time in the past, Shondell said.
Carly Cramer is “an inspirational leader and the glue” at libero, Shondell said.
Purdue opens its season with a home tournament that includes a visit from USC and its coach Mick Haley, like Shondell a product of Ball State. Big Ten play begins in late September.
“We’re forced to redefine who we are this year,” Shondell said. “What we were in the past was kind of an Ariel Turner show. And everybody knew that and when they prepared for us they could spend half their time working on how to shut down Ariel Turner.
“Now we become a team that has six or seven people you’d better be preparing for because we’re going to spread the ball around.”
And that’s where the Europe lessons will be applied.
“The trip to Europe was surreal,” Cramer said. “It could not have gone any better.
“Traveling to Europe, we played the best volleyball competition I’ve ever played against. It was very neat to see the different styles from different country. It taught me a lot.”
And that’s worth talking face to face about.