Ivy League is back: “Energy and joy just to be in the gym and playing is contagious”

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NCAA volleyball Ivy League 8/25/2021-Sam Bray-Yale women's volleyball
Yale's Sam Bray/Yale Athletics photo

In nearly three decades as the women’s volleyball coach at Harvard, Jennifer Weiss has seen ups, downs and everything in between. But she hadn’t experienced anything quite like last week when her players convened in the gymnasium to open practice for the 2021 season.

With any new season, there is anticipation and excitement. But after being away from competition for the better part of two years, the Crimson players displayed a euphoria even Weiss hadn’t seen.

“The energy and joy just to be in the gym and playing is contagious,” Weiss said. “Everyone is just ready to go … You always want everyone to be grateful, and I can feel that part of it.”

While most programs and/or conferences opted to play a hybrid fall/spring schedule in 2020 amid the covid-19 pandemic — the NCAA championships were held in the spring — the Ivy League suspended its athletic activities.

No volleyball season in 2020-21.

But the 2021 season is going ahead as so many before it, and after the long layoff, the league’s eight women’s programs are ramping up for some long-awaited competition. Though some trepidation remains, the teams are focused on getting back to what they love.

“I think there was a lot of underlying anxiety for the players and for me,” said Sabrina King, in her 10th year at the helm of Princeton. “People are still concerned about: Are we going to have to wear masks? Are we going to have spectators? But focusing on what we can control is the name of the game. Just put one foot in front of the other.”

First and foremost, Ivy League coaches will be dealing with rosters that have undergone more than the usual turnover. Besides losing the annual crop of seniors, teams also are dealing with losing the 2019 junior class, who would have been seniors in 2020, to graduation.

Per Ivy League rules, students are allowed to spend only eight semesters earning their undergrad degrees. That includes athletes.

The “free year” the NCAA granted athletes because of disruptions caused by the pandemic does not apply. Only if an Ivy League athlete has taken a year off from school would he or she be eligible to compete after the rest of the students from their class had graduated.

Cameron Dames/Princeton photo

To illustrate the turnover, consider only seven of 21 players who were first-, second-team or honorable mention all-league in 2019 return: Brown’s Sophia Miller, who was the 2019 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, and Kaitlyn Wong; Cornell’s Jillienne Bennett and Madison Baptiste; Yale’s Samantha Bray and Kathryn Attar; and Princeton’s Cameron Dames, who was the league’s defensive player of the year in 2019.

Weiss said eight of her 16 players are new to the program.

Erin Appleman, whose Yale Bulldogs captured three consecutive league titles before COVID-19 paused the streak, is dealing with a similar situation. She said she carries 18 players, and “we have pretty much eight players who have never played for Yale.”

King, meanwhile, noted most programs will be breaking in essentially two freshman classes: the 2021 newbies, as well as the sophomores who arrived as freshmen during the hiatus last fall.

“A lot can change in two seasons or a year and a half,” she said. “There are a lot of variables, but all the teams will be coming out of the gate ready to play again.”

Eager, yes, but therein lies another challenge for the coaches: Don’t let the players overdo it.

The way players were able to keep in tune during the layoff varied. Coaches tried to keep on top of activity using Zoom chats and any other means at their disposal if they weren’t able to have bodies in the campus gym and/or weight room.

So the enthusiasm with being back on the court has to be balanced with caution. With a number of uncertainties lying ahead, adding injuries to the equation is the last thing coaches want to deal with.

“It’s going to be 20 to 21 months since we have competed,” Appleman said. “I think it’s just kind of starting off slower to get the athletes used to training at the level they trained at before.

“I think we are monitoring their jumps, their conditioning, making sure they all come back in a safe manner.”

King concurred: “It’s going to be a challenge for sure. The spring was really robust for us. All the non-seniors on campus practiced. We got a lot accomplished there.

“I think the challenge is easing them back in slowly to prevent injury but also trying to get them up to speed as quickly as possible.”

Harvard’s Jaimie Rao/Harvard photo

New leaders also will have to step up as quickly as possible for a few teams. At Harvard, for example, co-captaincy falls on junior Jaimie Rao and senior Julia Beckman. While Rao was set to be a captain in 2020, Beckman has appeared in only 11 matches in her previous two seasons.

Dartmouth has just four seniors listed on its roster — DS/libero Bella Hedley, middles Emma Moffet and Francesca Meldrum and outside Nicole Liddle —  who would have been only sophomores the last time they were on the court. Each got a wealth of experience two seasons ago, but now they will be tasked with anchoring a team that has 10 freshmen and sophomores.

Then there is Penn, which hired Meredith Schamun as its coach in March 2020. If that date sounds ominous, it is when the pandemic hit the U.S. with both barrels.

So not only will the Quakers be breaking in a host of new players, they are under the direction of a coach who is heading a program for the first time.

If that wasn’t enough, Schamun is tasked with repairing the psyche and image of a team that experienced its share of controversy in 2019. According to an April 18, 2019, article in the school newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, several players quit as the result of reported mistreatment by their former coach. Later, the Quakers’ 2019 season was halted with two matches remaining after the administration’s discovery of “vulgar, offensive, and disrespectful posters” in the team’s locker room, according to a November 13, 2019, university release.

Though eager to begin the rebuilding process — the former Rice standout said the wait was “very difficult. I’d be lying if I said otherwise” — Schamun said the competition vacuum had more benefits than drawbacks. Rather than having months to prepare for her inaugural season, she and the players had well over a year.

“It gave us the opportunity to build trust (with the players) and set a foundation,” said Schamun, who was the Conference USA setter of the year in 2009. “We were really fortunate to get in the gym and have some time to get to know each other.

“It allowed us to play with some ideas. In the spring, I had only one assistant, and the other was hired just a few weeks ago, so we just said … let’s guinea pig with this team. It gave us an opportunity to play with some things as coaches.”

Schamun said, of course, her goal is to win the Ivy League. That might sound like a tall order, but, as a naturally competitive person, she won’t shy away from the loftiest of goals.

Failing that, she said she simply wants to see her players grow in their skill level and as teammates and learn through whatever opportunities the season might present.

“I think we have a long way to go with some skill stuff,” she said. “It’s just a slow build for us. We’re still going to learn things through these first couple of weeks.

“We’re ready to go as far as having the mental side of the game. Now it’s just a matter of executing and putting together our system over the next few weeks.”Chuck Curti

The team that can get all its pieces together quickest likely will have a leg up on reaching the top of the conference. Since 2011, only three teams have reached that spot: Yale, Princeton and Harvard. Penn, in 2010, was the last team other than those three to win the Ivy League title outright.

And in a year when so much is new, it might not be a stretch to think there could be a different team sitting atop the standings in the fall.

“Going into conference, our expectation doesn’t change,” Appleman said. “We are the three-time defending champions, but I feel like everyone is in the same spot.”

Weiss said everyone is hitting a reset button this season, and she thinks that will make an already-competitive league even more entertaining.

“I think there is a lot of parity in the league to begin with,” she said.

Parity. And joy.

VolleyballMag.com contributor Chuck Curti is a sports copy editor and writer for the Tribune-Review and Triblive.com (Greensburg, PA).
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