Dec. 4, 2008

By Amy Farnum Novin

Earning a berth in the NCAA Division I Championship field is an accomplishment for any women's volleyball program, especially for a school making its first appearance in the tournament, but after facing the challenges of living in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Tulane's squad should be especially proud of their achievement.

Four years ago, then first-year head coach Liz Kritza was adjusting to her new position, setting a plan in motion to raise Tulane's program to a national contender.  With only five returning players, she and her staff recruited a class of seven talented incoming freshmen and started the season with a promising victory.  Overnight, however, the Green Wave's bright outlook drastically changed.

"By the time they got to practice the next morning, there was this major hurricane threat in the Gulf of Mexico and uncertainty set in," said Kritza.  "Within two hours, we're informed that we would have to evacuate."

The coach and team formed a plan, and several were released to leave New Orleans with their visiting families.  They packed their bags for a three-day trip and took the staff's workout routines to stay in shape during the evacuation.  Players and coaches arrived at their predetermined destinations and waited for the storm to pass.  But life did not return to normal after the skies cleared, and the city and university looked toward a long and complicated recovery effort.

"There was this big, looming question of `now what?'" said Kritza. "It was incredible to believe that we were looking at a situation where we didn't know if there would be school, much less if we would continue on as a program.  Basic needs took precedence of course, and then in a few days we got word to assemble in Houston.  Through the generosity of other universities in the area, our student-athletes would be accommodated, particularly for their activities to be able to continue their semester."

Tulane - the largest private employer in New Orleans - closed for the semester, but six of the Green Wave's sports teams, including football, volleyball and soccer, were sent to Texas A&M to resume life as student-athletes.  Six weeks after their initial meeting at the beginning of the fall season, the Tulane women's volleyball team had missed 10 matches and almost three weeks of training, but took up temporary residence in College Station and began competing again.

"I knew when we got to College Station that the challenge that presented itself could not connect human beings in a closer way," said Kritza.  "I knew seeing how they reconnected that this was going to be a special group if we could make it through."

The challenges were daunting with a new home and a new school, lost training and competition, and that uneasy feeling of uncertainty. 

"There was no other coach in the country that I could call who I could ask how you take a program through a semester like that without knowing if your university is going to stay open," said Kritza.  "You're competing with resources different and unusual that what you expected and you have to rewrite all of your plans, your thinking, and your schedules.  You also have the possibility of losing recruits, and if these kids are going to hang in there or will they transfer."

After their initial victory, the 2005 squad suffered through a 5-16 season to add to their dismal situation, but concluded the year on a high note as they made a run to the Conference USA semifinals.

"You saw glimpses of what this program could and should be, and those glimpses what we had planned on after I first came to Tulane," said Kritza.   "The positive ending to the 2005 season was crucial to our success - it was a huge stepping stone because needed to wash away all of the trauma."

With such a young team struggling through that first year, Kritza knew it was possible some players would want to transfer, but all seven freshmen remained with the program.

"Since it was our first year, we never experienced something else, and we didn't know better if we wanted something different," said senior right-side hitter Bridget Wells.  "We came here for Tulane, and our team was our home and our coach is like a mom to us.  During that time, you would rather stick to what you know instead of going somewhere more unfamiliar."

Coaches and players moved back to New Orleans for the spring semester in 2006, and although there were unsettling times due to limited resources and cutbacks in the Athletics Department, they turned the experience into positive one.

"It's something not a lot of people on other teams can say they have with six other people," said Wells.  "It definitely created a unity for us both off and on the court.  Being able to know each other that well because of that experience really helped us mesh on the court."

As sophomores, they enjoyed a 10-win improvement in 2006 to finish the year 15-11, and were even better as juniors when the Green Wave finished 28-6.  With seven returning seniors entering 2008, Kritza had reason to expect good things and the team lived up to those expectations.  The Green Wave enters the NCAA Tournament with a 27-5 record, regular season and tournament titles in Conference USA play, and the program's first-ever postseason bid.   Tulane has won 25 of its last 26 matches, and is the No. 16 national seed in the bracket - the first C-USA team to achieve the feat.

"Where we are now is where we hoped to be from we initially started in the spring of 2005," said Kritza.  "We knew it would take a couple years, and obviously that season threw a kink into the plan, but what we did is talked about the setback and how we would adjust and change some parts of it.  I think it made us much better coaches because we had to be creative and think outside of the box and exhaust all of your resources to get to your eventual goal.  This wasn't the path we designed to get here, but there was belief that we could and should be at this point."

The Green Wave is proud of how far they have come while overcoming extreme challenges, but Kritza says they are far from satisfied with just a bid in the NCAA tournament.

"We aren't finished accomplishing by any means," said Kritza.  "We've had to reset things and go back and say we're here, and yes, we've earned the opportunity.  But the opportunity is here for us to do something with it.   I think one thing that has helped us progress is continually raising our expectations.  We're not satisfied until we're to the point we've given everything we have."