Just before winter break in 2020, Brown volleyball player Ashley Oelrich asked coach Ahen Kim to join her for coffee. Frustrated by losing her junior season to the pandemic — the Ivy League canceled all of its fall sports in 2020 because of concerns over COVID-19 — Oelrich wanted to talk to Kim about how to make the most of her upcoming senior season.
Though she had been primarily a complementary player through her first two seasons, Oelrich was concerned less with her playing time and more with winning. Kim said the upshot of their conversation was this: The libero/defensive specialist wanted to do anything, no matter how great or small, to move the program in the right direction.
That type of selflessness and sacrifice has been typical of Brown under Kim, now in his fourth season at the helm. Those traits have helped the Bears to overcome early-season injuries and other obstacles to go 7-0 through the first half of the Ivy League schedule (and 14-3 overall).
The Bears, who have won 10 in a row and are coming off a four-set victory at Princeton that broke a tie at the top of the Ivy standings, play host to Yale on Friday.
The last time Brown won an Ivy League title? In 2001, when many of those on the current roster weren’t even born.
Kim has assembled a roster — lured from across the country not by athletic scholarships but by the prospect of an Ivy League education and, as Kim called it, Brown’s unique open curriculum — that has created a culture built on three pillars. They are pillars he hopes will mean long-term stability for the program and many years of vying for the Ivy League’s top spot.
HUMBLE AND HUNGRY: Most volleyball programs were affected by the pandemic. Some played only limited schedules. Some, such as the teams in the Ivy League, didn’t have a season at all.
In Brown’s case, having no 2020 season meant Kim opened the 2021 season with essentially two freshman classes: the new recruits plus the sophomores, who had their freshman season scrapped. That meant 10 “freshmen” on the roster.
Even the current juniors had only one season of competitive college volleyball to their credit, further deepening the Bears’ inexperience.
To add yet another complication, the Bears couldn’t practice together as a team until the final two weeks of this past spring. In the fall, the students were learning exclusively online, and the incoming freshman class had its orientation delayed until the spring.
The current sophomores’ academic year wound up being spring and summer, so that group was able to work together to get some cohesion. That proved to be beneficial, as several are filling key roles: setter Cierra Jenkins (third in the Ivy League at 10.19 assists per set), right side Kate Sheire (eighth in the league in kills per set at 3.10) and middle Zoe Ubamadu (fifth in the league in hitting percentage at .352).
“I think they really stepped up, especially the sophomores,” said junior defensive specialist Kaitlyn Wong.
A couple of freshmen have moved into prominent roles as well. Beau Vanderlaan has been the starting middle from day one. She is third on the team with 155 total kills and tops the Ivy League with a .395 hitting percentage.
Victoria Vo has taken over as the primary libero. After coming to the program as an outside hitter — she played several of the team’s early matches at outside while junior Sophia Miller was injured — she made the switch and has rewarded the Bears with 4.75 digs per set, second in the league.
“It was incredibly important for some people to be versatile,” Miller said. “Victoria had to play outside for preseason because I was out, then she transferred to libero. And having our other two setters, Kristin (Sellers) and Kate (Danaher) coming in for preseason and really getting us through those preseason games before Cierra was ready was really important for establishing some connections on the team.
“Our bench is a really big part of our entire game. They are the ones that really drive the starters on the court. Everyone knows they are so important to this team … if you are on the court, off the court … everyone is at our back and will be supportive no matter what.”
Kim ties that attitude back to the current seniors: Oelrich, Sellers, Paris Winkler and Catherine Mihm. Though they might not always feature prominently in the stat sheet, they are the ones who set the tone for what is shaping up to be Brown’s best season in years.
Brown hasn’t been above .500 in the Ivy League since 2013 and hasn’t won more than 13 matches overall since 2001.
“I think losing the year only made them more hungry,” Kim said, “and I think (the seniors) really understood this program had to go through a period of renewal and revival. I think they just bought into the direction it was going.
“When things are hard, those are the ones our team leans on. The seniors have been there before. They know what it can be like. … The upperclassmen, their attitude and their mentality, I think, had a positive effect on the youngsters on our team.”
Assistant coaches Rob Chilcoat and Taylor Virtue were liberos in college, Chilcoat at Loyola Chicago and Virtue at Northwest Nazarene. While watching Vo during practices, Kim noticed her deft back-row skills and asked Chilcoat and Virtue if they thought Vo could play libero.
Both agreed she was fit for the role. There was a catch, though. The Bears already had an Ivy League honorable mention libero in Wong.
Ultimately, Kim switched Vo to libero, and Wong assumed a regular rotation spot in the back row. Wong has not let her production drop, recording 10 service aces and ranking second on the team with 151 digs. More importantly, rather than sulk over losing her job at libero, she has continued to serve as a mentor for Vo.
“It (the switch) only caught fire because of how great a teammate Kaitlyn was, how close they became during preseason camp,” Kim said. “And Kaitlyn continues to mentor Vic even now. She continues to mentor and love on the kid and help her out. And Victoria is really starting to come into her own because of it.”
Said Wong: “She’s probably my best friend, and I am so proud of her. Even through all this, I am so grateful that she is here … That’s definitely what I mean about this team. There is so much love on this team that I feel like no other team has this undeniable amount of support for each other.
“Ultimately, we put the team first … Through all the hardships and the tiredness of the seasons and all the things that might be hard or get us down or just challenges in general, I think we just lean into our love for each other. And I think that’s what ultimately has gotten us so far.”
Creating that culture where no player puts the team above herself is one thing. But players still need to be able to perform when the chips are down.
Warm and fuzzy platitudes don’t win matches. A requisite amount of skill is required, and Miller credited Kim’s eye for talent for helping Brown in its rise.
“Ahen did a good job of recruiting girls that he knew would come out of high school and be ready to play on a college team,” she said. “We all played for really competitive clubs, so pressure isn’t a thing that’s really new to us.”
That served the Bears well during the early part of the season. Once they made it through their non-conference schedule, persevering through injuries and position changes, they opened Ivy League play with perennial favorite Yale.
The match in New Haven, Connecticut, marked the first time Kim had his regular lineup together. The match might have lacked aesthetic value, but the Bears grinded out a 3-2 victory, taking the final set 15-13.
That set them on their way to an unbeaten first run through the league and was part of the team’s current 10-match winning streak that also includes non-conference wins over Central Connecticut State, Sacred Heart and Hartford.
“The Yale match was important for so many reasons,” Kim said. “It was a crazy match. For us to come through that match, with all the ups and downs in it, it proved to this team that no matter how hard things might get or what kind of mistakes might happen, we can just continue to grind our way into being relevant in each set.
“We won it. It wasn’t pretty. But it’s a road win, and it kind of set the precedent for how we need to approach all of our matches thereafter.”
Now comes the hard part: the second trip through the Ivy League schedule. With only the league champion getting an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament — the Ivy League does not have a postseason tournament, and an at-large team is unlikely to be selected — the second half of the schedule will be an ad hoc playoffs.
And for the other seven teams, it’s Bear season.
PATIENT AND STRONG: Ask Miller which match stood out to her in the first half of the Ivy League schedule, and her answer is of a very recent vintage. She pointed to last weekend’s victory over Princeton as a watershed moment for the program. (Miller contributed a match-high 18 kills and also had 16 digs in the win.)
Brown hadn’t beaten Princeton since 2013.
“In my mind, the Yale match was nowhere near our best match,” Miller said. “I think winning meant we could beat some of the better teams, but we also could do so much better to beat those teams.
“(Princeton) was the game we had all been waiting for. We knew we would have to play so much harder than we did against any other team to win that game, and we did.”
Kim said he has no doubt the players were celebrating euphorically in the locker room after the win over Princeton. Perhaps they even talked about a conference title and moving on to the NCAA Tournament.
That’s OK. Kim wants them to have their eyes on those prizes.
“We just got through the league 7-0, and so I have to think for a team this young who hasn’t been through it yet … the fact that (they) experience success and beat everyone once … I think it’s starting to really sink in. It’s not this ambiguous goal. It has to seem more attainable now than it did before.”
But Kim said the players also have been diligent in not getting ahead of themselves. As satisfying as it was to run the table the first time through the Ivy League, the team knows it now has the proverbial bull’s-eye on its collective back.
Players acknowledged there still are parts of their game that can be cleaned up.
Wong said the team needs to be more consistent in maintaining a high level of play and avoid lulls in intensity. Miller pointed to more technical aspects, such as being better at shutting down the opposing team’s attack from the middle, overall blocking and more efficient serving.
She said, it boils down to treating the next round through the Ivy League as a new season.
“I think we just need to play every team as if it’s the first time and there has been no context for it,” she said. “Focusing on their new film will be important because I know some teams are really switching things up and a lot of players have gone down in the past couple of weeks.
“We have to have no expectations for ourselves. We can’t be cocky. We just need to play our game.”
“No expectations” was how Kim approached the season. After losing a year to the pandemic, he said he wasn’t sure what his team could accomplish — other than learning and growing.
The growth appears to be occurring at a rapid rate. Now the Bears will see if they can keep it going through November.
“We are a true family,” Wong said. “We are so thankful to be here with each other, and we really love each other in such a deep way. … We’re able to take the competitive side of being on the same team and competing for the same spots and really turn it into something beautiful.
“Something is happening here that could be really good.”