Experience is the best teacher.
This makes the recent success for the Harvard women’s volleyball team all the more impressive, with an extremely young squad that features four freshmen sporting important roles on the team.
Only teammates for a few months, these freshmen have already made a noticeable impact for the Crimson. Sitting at 11-6 overall and 6-2 in the Ivy League, Harvard has put itself in a position to compete for a league title at the end of the year.
The task of starting college volleyball can seem daunting to a freshman. Adjusting requires intense preparation and strong team chemistry.
“Everyone is just really welcoming and friendly,” freshman libero Sydney Vach said. “They don’t really take your age into consideration, just your skill, and it’s great.”
Despite Vach already having racked up 88 digs on the year, no one expects the adjustment from high school volleyball to Division I competition to be easy for any student-athlete.
“The adjustment has actually been a lot easier than I expected,” freshman hitter Mindie Mabry noted. “I got to find my way around campus, the girls got to show me where I would eat, where all my classes would be, and they showed me the ins and outs, like the Annenberg etiquette.”
Although the student-athlete lifestyle has its intense challenges, being a member of such a tight-knit community that looks out for one another makes this transition as smooth as possible.
“I think being on the team has really made it a lot easier than it otherwise would be,” freshman hitter Evelyn Gray said. “They just help with everything, from classes, moving in, and adjusting. Already coming in you have this great group of friends, and that really made things a lot smoother.”
Without a doubt, the leadership and openness of the upperclassmen has helped this young team to bloom into an Ivy League contender.
“I think we have a lot of leaders on this team, and the way our team is structured, being older doesn’t make you a go-to leader necessarily, whereas everybody is involved in setting the example,” said senior defensive specialist Heather Sigurdson.
“We try to welcome our freshmen very openly when they come in, and they’re very accepting of their positions and see where they fit in best on the court,” senior hitter Paige Kebe said, “And this year, per usual, the freshmen have been really great additions and they fit really well personality-wise.”
The underclassmen have a tough road ahead of them, and some adjustments are harder than others.
Freshman hitter Sandra Zeng touched on her vastly different background and the adjustments she had to make at Harvard.
“I think it was a really big change for me, especially just because of the really different cultures from Hawaii and the East Coast, but I feel like the seniors are our sisters, they’re family,” Zeng said. “I can definitely ask them any questions or open up to them.”
To all of the freshmen, however, college life as a student-athlete is a totally different experience that takes some getting used to.
“It’s a little intimidating, especially going to other D-1 gyms, but it’s a challenge that I’m starting to adapt to,” Mabry said.
Mabry, even with her impressive 121 kills and 143 points on the season, obviously is not alone in her experiences of early playing time in a daunting freshman year.
“For me initially, the nerves are there,” Zeng said. “My first year of college volleyball, this is different from back home. But the team keeps you feeling comfortable and well-supported throughout the matches.”
As Vach said, “It’s a change, but it’s not so big of a change that you feel so out of place.”
The results of the season are not only the result of team chemistry, bonding, and mentorship. In the gym, the squad has put in tremendous amounts of work that is quickly paying dividends.
“I personally focus on challenging everyone as much as I can, whether that’s with my own play or just any tips and tricks during the game,” captain Christina Cornelius explained. “I just really see all the potential in people and try to bring that out during by making sure that everyone is giving each other good feedback and really motivating each other to do the best that they can.”
Gray, who got her first start last week, described the excitement of competing in these important games.
“I got a few blocks off the bat, and it was just overall a good feeling, and I’m excited for more of that,” Gray said.
Playing down the stretch, leadership on such a young team will be key to sustaining high-level play capable of making a run at the championship. In order to do so, these freshmen can learn a lot while filling their important roles by continually looking to the seniors for guidance, encouragement, and teaching.
This ability for such a young team to adjust and develop bodes well for the Crimson. Following last year, Harvard was determined to improve.
“We are kind of bouncing back from a tougher season last year,” admitted Sigurdson.
Harvard has profited greatly from the development of its young team, greatly improving upon last year’s performance.
By playing well down the stretch, the Crimson can use its momentum to carry it to compete for the Ivy League title. With its promising young stars, however, the team is undoubtedly in good hands.
Kebe explained, “It’ll definitely be very sad, but I’m ready to pass on this great legacy of our team to the younger ones and see where they’re able to take it.”
If this season is any indication of the outlook of Harvard volleyball, the future is very bright.
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