By Kyle Koso
With each resounding kill shot, sizzling serve and hard-earned dig, the return of youth volleyball feels more and more real in the spring of 2021, all nicely timed with the return of the Triple Crown Volleyball NIT, set for this weekend in Kansas City, MO.
Launching the 2021 event was College Camp Friday and that evening’s Unsigned Player Workout; the camps were run by the coaching staffs of multiple NCAA D-IID-III and NAIA programs, and more than 90 athletes took part in the Unsigned Workout. While the coaches ran their drills and made connections with possible recruits, it was obvious the players as well reveled in the chance to do something normal after the relentless abnormality of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The TC NIT itself isn’t quite back to normal speed, as many clubs had to make other plans when it was postponed from President’s Day Weekend. But the 325-team field still flexes real muscle, and players and coaches are grateful to be back in the swing.
“I’m really excited about this event in particular. For months, I was thinking the February Triple Crown event was the one I had in mind, where it might all be over by then,” said Point Loma Nazarene University head coach Jonathan Scott. “When it got postponed, that was a real bummer. It really was emotional.”
Alina Nunez, 16, of the Revolution Volleyball Academy (Phoenix, AZ) took some authoritative swings during her time at College Camp Friday, and she also spoke of the simple joy of being back at a meaningful event, shoulder to shoulder again with her teammates.
“While everything was off, I felt really bored and anxious – I didn’t have practice three times a week. I was so excited to know we were coming back here,” Nunez said. “Last year at this tournament I was so excited; I did so good, and the team finished second in its division. I really loved this camp, too, all the extra touches, just trying to get my strength back so I can dominate again.
“I like traveling with my friends, the hotels, exploring the town. I like the environment here. People are yelling, everyone is going for the ball, getting on the floor, coaches are getting their girls riled up, and me and my friends are just screaming at each other.”
No doubt, the college coaches who will attend the 2021 TC NIT can compare notes about what’s been missing, and what’s satisfying to be seeing again after months of disruption. Metro State head coach Jenny Glenn had her 2020 fall roster ready to attack, only to see it all shuttered; her spring squad had a great record (15-2), but there was no NCAA D-II tournament, leaving everyone with a sobering case of the “what-ifs.”
“It’s been a long year, a lot of restrictions, with volleyball taken away for a while. It’s a slow crawl to normal, but it’s nice to be back in the gym and see all these kids playing,” Glenn said. “The thought of a more normal fall feels more likely, and it’s great to be heading in that direction.
“We were very motivated after watching the national championship being played on our home floor last year. That was probably the best fall we’ve ever had even though we didn’t get to play. It changes things when you’re not playing for an NCAA championship. We return a lot of players next year, but you can say it was a bummer not to (have resolution). You try to make the best of it as a coach, is this something we can use to get better or understand the game better, set goals? At the end of the day you can put a pretty ribbon on it, but it’s not the same.”
Nunez said she has more maturity, perhaps as a result of the shutdown, where it makes more sense now to just deal with a mistake on the court and move on, rather than agonize over it and let one point affect the next in a negative way. No one would intentionally make young players go through the special hell of COVID just to make them mentally tougher, but it might be an unexpected benefit.
“The ones who don’t have the intrinsic motivation are behind. The ones who want it for themselves and play because they love the game, I think they will be just fine,” Scott added. “I think ‘silver lining’ is the appropriate title for it. It’s something I’m hopeful for when it comes to our incoming girls and the recruits we are looking at now, and it’s something I press into with my line of questioning, how they’re doing mentally. It can go in one of two directions.”
“Everyone experienced the pandemic differently. Some Texas schools in our region didn’t have the same restrictions we did; the D-II defending champion (Cal State Bernardino) didn’t have a season at all,” Glenn said. “It’s hard to know how it will shake out. I’m hopeful we all will come out of this stronger. It’s been a hard year in a lot of different ways. I do think when you go through adversity, if you can find ways to cope and have a good support system, you will come out stronger. I’m hopeful for the generation coming up that we will.”