Midwestern State, an NCAA Division II program located in Wichita Falls, Texas, about midway between Oklahoma City and the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, is off to a 5-2 start this season.
The Mustangs are coming off a weekend in which they won three matches in Austin, beating Black Hills State of South Dakota, St. Edwards of Austin and Southern Arkansas.Earlier this summer, the team took a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina and assistant coach John Forman, whom VolleyballMag.com readers might remember as the author of Volleyball Coaching Wizards, wrote about the team and trip:
History in the Making (#HITM). That’s the theme for the 2017 Midwestern State University volleyball team this season. It’s a vision which encompasses a couple of different ideas, and that included doing something no other MSU sports team has ever done: Never had an MSU team gone on a foreign trip.
NCAA rules allow teams to do foreign trips every four years. In Division I they are restricted from taking this kind of trip so close to the start of the season. MSU is a Division II program, though, and that same restriction did not apply. This was an important consideration in the timing of the trip.
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Senior setter and captain, Kristin Aduddell, offered this post-trip perspective.
“I liked how Argentina took us out of our comfort zone, on and off the court,” Aduddell said. “It was challenging, but it made us appreciated all we have back home.”
Why this year? Why August? The MSU coaching staff wanted to use the trip primarily as a team bonding experience. We had eight new players joining the program for the 2017 season, five freshmen and three transfers. At the same time, we were looking at five players in their final year with the team. This trip was thus seen as a way to help facilitate the transfer of knowledge and experience from the older players to the newer ones. It was also about generally bringing everyone together as a cohesive group by giving them a chance to get to know each other in very different circumstances.
Of course, there’s also the volleyball side of things. Taking the trip allowed the team to schedule some competitive matches at a time of year when teams don’t generally have much opportunity for that. It also let them start their preseason earlier than would have normally been the case. This helped with on-court integration in parallel with the off-court chemistry-building.
Why Buenos Aires? The timing necessitated a different type of trip than what most teams go on. It was, after all, happening during preseason. Most trips like this take place away from the season, which means volleyball need not be a major factor –- or any factor at all. MSU could not follow that path. We needed to be able to train consistently and wanted to avoid the frequent travel seen on many tours. That mandated going to a location with sufficient facilities to be able to practice just about daily, but also with enough interesting stuff to see and do as tourists during down time.
Other considerations were time zone changes and travel costs. Travel to Europe, for example, tends to be quite expensive during the summer months. It is also a minimum of six time zones away from the MSU campus in Wichita Falls. That’s meaningful when considering jetlag effects on both ends.
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Buenos Aires is the second largest city in South America with lots of stuff to do and see. While travel there is long (nine hours from Miami), it’s only a two-hour time change from MSU.
Tour organization: Most of the foreign trips you hear about are organized through one of a number of different tour companies. To save money, we (the MSU staff) planned the trip. We did all our own work domestically to make the necessarily arrangements, and to raise the money (the trip’s cost was entirely fundraised). The latter included bringing five-time USA Olympian Danielle Scott to campus for a speaking event.
For the Buenos Aires side of things, we enlisted the help of Santiago Gabari, founder of Voley Plus. That’s the leading volleyball news source in Argentina. Santiago made all the arrangements for the team, and also acted as the team’s guide during its stay in Buenos Aires.
The trip: We left on Saturday, August 12, with the team departing campus at 6 a.m. for a bus ride to Dallas. Then we caught a flight to Miami and connected on to Buenos Aires, arriving at about 5:30 the next morning. After naps and lunch, the team spent the afternoon sightseeing. Lots of walking!
Volleyball began Monday morning. Santiago arranged for MSU to train at the practice facility of Boca Juniors for the duration of the trip. Avid soccer fans will probably know of Boca as one of the biggest clubs in the world of professional soccer, but the club actually encompasses a number of sports. Volleyball is one of them, for both men and women. The Boca women are consistently among the best teams in Argentina. The practice facilities MSU used were within sight of the famous Bombonera soccer stadium, which the team got to tour.
On Wednesday and Friday night MSU was hosted by the San Lorenzo club for friendly matches. Like Boca, San Lorenzo is a multi-sport club with a strong tradition in soccer. They are no slouch in volleyball either. Their team featured professional players with some serious attacking power!
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The first night the match was played using FIVB rules. That meant only six total substitutions per set, just one entry per player, and no serving for the libero (same as the NCAA men’s rules). The second night they switched it up and used NCAA rules. The San Lorenzo coach took the opportunity to give a number of younger players their first opportunity to play with first team.
The atmosphere at San Lorenzo was fantastic. Though there were not a lot of fans in the arena, they more than made up for it with their noise. You can hear them singing at the conclusion of the match in the video clip below, which features the MSU players dancing along.
On the last day of the trip, MSU actually scrimmaged Boca in an informal match during the practice time slot. Boca was down several players to national team call-ups, so MSU loaned them a couple of hitters to fill out their team for the day. Junior outside hitter Rockelle Gholson was one of them. She went into it with an interesting mentality.
“When I was playing with Boca I had to give it my all on the court because I didn’t want to get yelled at in Spanish,” Gholson said.
In between the practices and the matches the team got to see a fair bit of the city. They visited Recoleta, Palermo, La Boca, San Telmo, and Puerto Madero, among other places. Much shopping was done and there was one very intense experience of the Buenos Aires subways during evening rush hour! The team had a tango lesson on Saturday night and afterwards took in a tango show. One of the players was even pulled up on stage at the end to dance with one of the performers.
The trip definitely achieved its main mission of helping to foster a strong team chemistry heading into the 2017 season. The players got to see each other in ways they never would have otherwise. They had a collection of shared experiences –- some perhaps more positive than others –- that will serve as a common point of reference for years to come. And beyond the radically different environment, they were simply together much more than they would have been back on campus.
“Nothing can bring a group of players together like this trip did,” MSU head coach Natalie Burton said. “There is something uniting about being forced outside your comfort zone and experiencing new things together. It has connected these ladies in a much stronger way.”
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Playing against –- and in some cases with –- professional players was an experience not easily replicated in the U.S. The team got to see a different approach to volleyball, one that opened their eyes and gave them some things to emulate in their own game moving forward.
“The competition we faced was some of the best we’ll see all year,” Burton said. “They played with so much power and relentlessness. The atmosphere was electric in the gym. We even took away some things to that we’ve implemented into our culture and how we play the game,” said Burton.
The trip was a big deal on campus. Senior administrators were extremely supportive and the university president met with the team upon their return to praise them for making history in a very positive way. At least for a while, volleyball was the talk of campus.
“We have set our sights high this year,” said Burton, whose team is already off to a better start after finishing 12-21 last year. “We really expect a lot out of this group and these girls expect a lot out of each other. We’re out to make history this year.”