By Kyle Koso
In years to come, there will be a million tales spun about how various college athletic programs dealt with COVID-19’s seismic alterations to “normal,” with most stories ending in tears or laughter or silent, stunned reflection.
All the disruptions did allow some teams, however, a chance to reset and remodel how they went about their business, often leading to progress on the other side. One group that is shining, now out of the pandemic’s shadows, is the volleyball squad from UConn, sitting 23-10 on the year and in the quarterfinals of the NIVC.
The Huskies will host North Florida (24-7) on Wednesday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. ET for a berth in the NIVC semifinals.
This is the first postseason moment for UConn since the 1994 NIVC, with head coach Ellen Kimball steering the team through its return to the Big East. Kimball was an assistant on the staff starting in 2014, taking over as interim head coach in early 2019 before getting the job free and clear in October. Once COVID hit, Kimball understood the down time and shifting concerns of her student-athletes didn’t mean it was impossible to put her stamp on the program.
“There were definitely moments of frustration and stress. I try to take it as the glass-is-half-full version … we were on pause, and you know there’s this belief that you have to be in the gym and be training, and if you’re not, you’re not doing any work,” said Kimball, a two-time MAC player of the year during her time at Ohio in the late 2000s. “I think the opposite; from the sports psychology perspective … looking at personalities and relationships, we viewed that as the work. And we did a lot of it. We checked in every day in some facet, we had group conversations.
“We began (to see) that life isn’t to be taken for granted, the opportunity to play volleyball and be together, you definitely can’t take that for granted. Three years ago, if there was a conflict with someone, you’d maybe sweep it under the rug and have this artificial harmony, but now we are comfortable having those conversations. It takes as much practice as it does the practice you have in the gym.”
With the mindset properly anchored with the Huskies, how they showed up on the court has been one of the surprises of the 2021 fall campaign. Grad transfer (from Wichita State) McKayla Wuensch earned Big East setter of the year, the first major conference award for a UConn player since 2008, and a roster with that ideal mix of upperclass savvy and underclass promise secured a bunch of quality wins, including one over Top 20 stalwart Creighton.
“Our success really didn’t happen overnight. We looked at the COVID spring (UConn went 4-7) as part of our process, not really like a time to shine,” Kimball said. “When we weren’t competing, we had a lot of conversations, tough ones, and a lot of buy-in. We saw everyone wanted the same goals, would make the compromises necessary, come in and work hard regardless of wins and losses and just living with no regrets. We then had the excitement for this new (fall 2021) season, being in a new conference, very much the underdog. Nobody out West had any idea who were or what our capabilities might be.”
Caylee Parker (with a team-high 422 kills) and Kennadie Jake-Turner (274 kills) earned first-team all-Big East honors; the team also found stability in the back row with the play of Houston transfer Karley Berkland, and there’s another high-quality killing arm connected top junior Jasmine Davis (331 kills), one of two California natives who crossed the country to suit up for UConn.
You can even tell it’s working for the Huskies in 2021 when it’s not working – the team hit a wall on a big weekend in mid-November, dropping matches to Seton Hall and Butler, two teams they had swept earlier in the season. As the No. 3 team out of the Big East behind Creighton and Marquette, UConn may not have had a lane for the NCAA Tournament anyway, but those losses still came at an awkward time. More importantly, the team didn’t unravel or see their theme of progress come undone despite the setbacks.
“We preach consistency. We’d been playing our best, most consistent volleyball, right there where you’re really in the grind of a typical season,” Kimball added. “Looking back, at that point our exhaustion level was probably at an all-time high. Everything about this year was new, especially for the freshmen and sophomores, being in a new conference, the travel … it was a moment where we got exhausted. After that moment, we had some reflections and accountability to get back on track. We managed to find a way to grind through it.”
LAST WORD – Kimball on the utility of the NIVC: “Last week, there were just 95 teams playing postseason volleyball out of the 340-odd D-I programs, and that was a big factor for us. The biggest reason why, and why the administration supported this, it’s the fact of getting the experience of playing in the postseason. This is a big building block to the foundation of our program, the realization that you won’t see what it takes until you are in it. We want to have fun, win, go all the way, but we need to start expecting to play volleyball after Thanksgiving. That’s something this program hasn’t done in a very, very long time. We get to see more teams, from other conferences, see the country; there are a lot of benefits to this.”