Volleyball emphasizes family first mentality


Junior Heather Younkin hits the ball over the net against Robert Morris University on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. Kent State won, 3-0.

Nick Buzzelli

A circle of players formed with locked arms during each timeout of the volleyball program’s mid-week match against Robert Morris University Tuesday night, using the brief break to give one another feedback on particular plays and advice on how to neutralize the opposition’s blocking core.

At the other end of the floor, the Colonials were slouched over in folding chairs in front of 888 fans in a crowded, noisy arena on the road.

Each team was at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of energy, and it was starting to show.

Kent State, ahead by two sets, was playing as one on the floor, freely communicating proper positioning. Robert Morris, on the other hand, was lacking that luxury.

The strong bond between Kent State’s 16 players was starting to show during this time. It’s a connection that was forged four years ago, when head coach Don Gromala took over, and it continues to be strengthened with each new player that enters the program.

“We’ve always been known for having close knit teams. It truly is like a family,” said Heather Younkin, an opposite hitter who has been a member of the team since 2014. “We’re all sisters. We’re always together, we’re always finding a way to make each other better.”

Having a family-first mentality for a sports team isn’t new by any standard, but it was something that was ingrained in the players two weeks before the official start of the season.

Gromala and his assistants accompanied the players on a three-day teambuilding retreat at Mohican State Park in Loudonville, 70 miles southwest of campus.

The retreat, which is held every other year due to costs, served as a way for the freshmen to assimilate with the culture of Kent State volleyball and connect with teammates in a technology-free zone through hiking, kayaking and camping.

“They take away our phones so we have to be talking to each other and get to know each other in different depths,” said Drew Norberg, senior middle blocker, prior to the start of the season. “It was uncomfortable for people at first, especially for those freshmen coming in. To not have your phone, you’re being away from your family. It’s pretty scary, but it builds trust within the team.”

While volleyball was on the retreat’s agenda, it wasn’t the main focus of the trip. Although players traveled to a local junior high gym for practice the second day to work on digging and out-of-system defensive drills, the rest of the outing was reserved for team building activities.

So when Kent State was trailing by three midway in the third set against Robert Morris, Gromala wasn’t worried. He knew that his players would pick up the slack for one another because that’s what families do, especially his.

“They play hard for each other and I think that’s really important. But they hold each other accountable as well,” he said following the Flashes’ three-set sweep. “They know if they’re having an off night that they have a teammate that can help pick them up or step in and do the job for them.”

Nick Buzzelli is a sports reporter, contact him at [email protected].