Florida college, prep programs get creative in dealing with effects of Irma

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Jacksonville Juniors building manager Scott Bishop’s home was flooded. His daughter, Lauren, plays on the JJVA 12 Ashley team/Photo courtesy of Scott Bishop

Soon after Hurricane Harvey unleashed widespread devastation on the Texas Gulf Coast, Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on Florida, as well as parts of Georgia and South Carolina.

And just like with Harvey, the volleyball community in those three states was affected in varying degrees by Irma. But for the most part, college, club and high-school coaches report their respective facilities, players and their families are in good shape in terms of storm damage, which spanned the spectrum from major to minor throughout the Sunshine State.

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The Stetson Hatters recently found themselves on an 11-day road trip as a result of Hurricane Irma/Stetson Athletics

But that’s not to say Irma’s high winds and rain didn’t cause a little craziness. On that front we’ll focus on Division I Stetson University, which sits in the suburban Orlando city of DeLand.

Stetson found itself, oddly enough, in Houston last weekend, playing in the Flo Hyman Collegiate Cup, where it went 0-3 against Houston, Mississippi State and McNeese State.

However, with the hurricane in Florida, Stetson couldn’t fly back home and ended up staying five nights in Houston, including making a hotel change.

The team then rented a charter bus and got to Mobile, Ala., earlier this week. On Wednesday, the Hatters, amidst bad traffic, got as far as Orlando (on their way to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., for a tournament that starts Frday) where it practiced at night at Central Florida. The team finally reached Boca Raton on Thursday, completing a wild 1,150-mile journey.

VolleyballMag.com caught up with Stetson and first-year head coach Yang Deng during a stop for lunch at a Panera in Tallahassee, Fla.

Deng, who spent 17 years as an assistant at Missouri, said the biggest challenge for the team during its extended trip was finding lodging.

“I’ve been constantly on the phone or my assistant has been trying to find hotels that can accommodate us all,” she said. “By this Sunday we will have stayed in six different hotels in 10 days. Every time we found a hotel, it was a last-minute thing. We were getting on our different apps whether it was Hilton, Marriott or Orbitz. It’s tough when you have 18 people. We have been having to combine players in rooms. Three in a room or five in a room sometimes. We found an Embassy Suites that has bigger rooms so we could get some quality rest and not need to have someone sleep on the floor.”

After playing Savannah State in Boca Saturday, Deng said the team will bed down in Altamonte Springs before making their journey back to DeLand.

After their flight was cancelled coming back to Florida, the Hatters immediately made the best of a bad situation.

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Stetson makes the best of a difficult situation in Houston/Stetson Athletics

“We were able to use Houston’s facility on Monday for practice,” Deng said. “And UCF held the court for us when we got back to Florida so we could practice at night.”

The Hatters’ extended stay included plenty of sightseeing in Houston.

“We realized there was nothing we could do about it,” Stetson senior middle blocker Shelby Connors said. “We were stuck in Houston for four or five days and we did a lot of fun stuff. A lot of teams in that situation might be stuck in their hotel. Our coaches let us go out shopping and we were able to experience some different food. We went out and did Topgolf. We made the best out of a bad situation.”

Connors added the team’s strong chemistry helped turn the tables.

“Our team gets along really well,” she said. “We don’t mind being around each other for 11 days. Actually, it’s kind of been nice not being stuck in your normal ways with class and then practice. It’s kind of different.”

But …

“It’s kind of hard to travel for 11 days when you packed for three days,” Connors said with a laugh.

Group loads of laundry were critical.

“We either did them on our own or as a team,” Connors said. “We were trying to do as little laundry as possible. We’re doing OK with toiletries. Everybody has been sharing. You deal with what’s handed to you.”

While in Houston, the team visited the well-known Waterwall, a multistory sculptural fountain in the city’s Uptown district.

“We hadn’t seen anything like that before,” she said. “We actually put on makeup and looked like people for once. The Topgolf thing was sweet, too.”

During a team meal at a Bellagreen restaurant in Houston, Connors was impacted by something she saw.

“It’s a really nice outdoor restaurant and there’s the outdoor seating and some shopping,” she said. “We saw little kids running around. With all the sadness that has been going around, it was nice to see that. It was refreshing.”

The team also got to sample Raising Cane’s chicken and the famed Cane’s sauce (also written about in last week’s story on the North Dakota women’s team’s extended road trip). Stetson also met up with the university’s men’s golf team in Alabama for a meal.

Connors added the team’s coaching staff of Deng and assistant deserve major props for their professional handling of the situation.

“They have been doing a great job,” she said. “Those first couple nights in Houston they stayed up all night trying to find hotels. They have done more for us than we could imagine. They made sure we had stuff to do, had good food to eat and good hotels to stay in.”

On the flipside, Deng said her players were equally up to the task.

“They have been handling it very well,” she said. “We went sightseeing and have practiced. The girls have worked hard. They have a very good mindset with the situation we have been in. Nobody is stressed out. They all have been very flexible and open-minded. It’s been a tiring trip having everybody together on a small bus. We’ve stuck together.”

Speaking of Florida Atlantic, the team had its originally scheduled tournament at South Florida in Tampa cancelled last weekend, but was still able to travel up to UNC-Greensboro and play in an impromptu tournament there.

Central Florida, which helped Stetson out with a practice court for the Hatters to use on their way to FAU, found itself in a similar situation as the Hatters.

After Orlando International Airport closed, UCF ended up taking a 20-hour bus ride back to campus after playing in the Central Arkansas Classic in Conway, Ark. UCF arrived back to campus Tuesday.

However, lingering effects of Irma have forced the Knights to alter their VolleyKnights Invitational this weekend. Ole Miss could not travel due to air delays, which will result in UCF playing Virginia twice, Friday and Saturday. This is UCF’s first home action of the season after playing in events in Greeley, Colo., Ft. Myers, Fla., and in Arkansas.

“I’ve been impressed with how resilient we have been,” Knights coach Todd Dagenais said. “We managed three weeks on the road, a long bus trip and the aftermath of a major hurricane.”

Miami-based Florida International University, under the direction of sport great Rita Buck-Crockett, was slated to open its campus back up Friday. The Panthers did not play in a tournament last weekend in Conway, S.C., and will not be able to host its tournament this weekend that was to feature South Alabama, Auburn, James Madison and Savannah State.

A team spokesman said players scattered about the country when the forecast came across that Miami could take a direct hit from the storm. He added buildings on campus are fine and the team’s arena has been hosting some Key West residents who are awaiting bridges in the Florida Keys to be inspected before returning home.

Jacksonville University coach Julie Darty reported the team’s Swisher Gymnasium was damaged from the storm. However, the team has been able to work with nearby University of North Florida, which has been out of town all week and will be this weekend, to secure practice time there and host its tournament this weekend at North Florida.

Jacksonville also encountered some travel hiccups. It left Thursday, Sept. 7, for Alabama State in Montgomery, and was still traveling back home Tuesday.

“We are fortunate enough to have friends in Alabama and found places to practice,” Darty said. “Monday, we practiced at Hoover Met Complex. We have a player from the Birmingham area who played for Southern Performance, so I reached out to her club director and they were kind enough to host us.”

Jacksonville ended up practicing at Auburn on Tuesday.

“Auburn set up a practice gym for us and we even ate in one of their dining halls,” Darty said. “We have been on our little tour of Alabama and have had a lot of time together.”

Darty admitted the hurricane did weigh on the team, which has five Floridians on it.

“I think everyone on the team was affected because we love our campus and we love our city,” said Darty, herself a Florida native. “Everyone was really worried about Jacksonville.”

Over in Gainesville, the University of Florida reported no damage to its facilities. The Gators did cancel their Active Ankle Challenge that was to feature American, Michigan State and UNC-Greensboro. Tuesday’s match against Florida State was rescheduled to this coming Tuesday, Sept. 19.

One player’s family did suffer some damage. Junior setter Allie Monserez’s family had a large tree fall on one of its cars in the Orlando area.

Florida hosts Lipscomb and Northern Kentucky Friday and the team is promoting a donation drive, asking fans to bring toiletries, socks, Ziploc bags, cleaning supplies, nonperishable food items, clothing, baby wipes, diapers and blankets.

The University of South Florida in Tampa reported no major damage. The team did cancel its USF Classic slated for last weekend and according to a team spokesman plans are in the works for team to donate shirts and boxed of clothes for those who have been displaced and lost their homes due to the hurricane.

The College of Charleston ended up staying two extra nights in Ohio because of campus being closed until Wednesday afternoon. The team has been active on the relief-effort front, donating  20 pairs of shoes and assorted clothing to Houston to help with Hurricane Harvey relief.

On the high-school and club fronts, Oviedo High School located near Orlando, has been out of school all this week and had a pair of matches cancelled, including one against Bishop Moore that was to be televised on cable locally.

“We were very lucky and all my players and their families made it through the storm with minimal damage,” Oviedo coach Jen Darty said. “Our area was heavily hit by the storm but I feel we are lucky because of how bad it could have been. We still are without power in several areas. I lucked out and got mine back (Tuesday), but my parents, several friends, players and coaches still are without power (as of mid-week).”

At Lake Highlands High School in Orlando, the team lost two matches this week, but still is going to play in the Berkeley Prep tournament in Tampa this weekend.

“Even after having our hotel canceled due to damage,” noted coach Erin Fleming. “We were able to find a new hotel that could accommodate the team with reasonable pricing and short notice. I’m glad Berkeley’s school is doing well and able to host this weekend.”

In terms of impact from the storm, Fleming added, “It is fair to say everyone was impacted. Our players spent the majority of their Tuesday and Wednesday helping their parents with cleanup. Some of our players and coaches still are without power (as of Thursday morning).”

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Hurricane Irma floods the home of JJVA Building Manager Scott Bishop/Courtesy Scott Bishop

Back up in Jacksonville, Jacksonville Juniors’ CJ Sherman noted a third of the club’s players live in Clay County where as of Wednesday, 48 percent of that county still was without power.

“There was lots of flooding, loss of property and cars,” Sherman said. “There has been no school and no volleyball. We were co-hosting a huge high-school tournament this weekend, but many school cannot come because they are not in school.”

Sherman said the club reopened earlier in the week and had individuals and private schools using the facility to practice.

Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga., which has several players in the Jacksonville Juniors club, has missed six matches. With its county under a mandatory evacuation at one point (individuals were not allowed back on St. Simon’s Island and in the Brunswick area until Wednesday after bridges were inspected and water receded), Glynn players had been gone since last Friday. The team held its first practice in more than a week on Thursday.

Nease High School in Ponte Verda Beach, Fla., near Jacksonville, lost two matches and two practices due to the storm. The team also was active in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts (collecting canned food) prior to Irma hitting.

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