Volleyball seeks to establish healthy competition

Jimmy Miller

As head coach Don Gromala watched members of his team lead rafts down the whitewater rapids of Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, he hoped that similar leadership would help deliver the women’s volleyball team wins this season.

“We knew that going rafting would be a good opportunity to be something kind of fun (and) different, but also be challenging,” Gromala said. “It was all about working together and getting down the bottom of the river safely and that’s what we did.”

The coach took the girls on the trip as a method to create a sense of team bonding. Junior Kelly Hutchison said the team split up into groups of six girls and each member of the group took turns leading the raft down the river.

“With each boat you need a captain who tells you to go right or go left or how to steer the boat. It was kind of fun watching everyone in our boat lead,” Hutchison said.

Gromala, entering his third year as head coach, appointed seniors Kaylee Koller, Liz Reikow and Jenny Buczek to be captains of the squad. With 18 girls, more than the team has had the past couple of years, Gromala hopes to see the leadership during the trip translate to management from his captains.

“I think with such a big group…we all wanted to pick a group of captains capable of echoing or mirroring the expectations of the staff,” Gromala said. “They’ve been through the tougher times so they have a little appreciation for where we are headed.”

Kent State is returning nine lettermen after posting a 12-18 overall record, 6-10 Mid-American Conference record. The team fell to Ohio University in the first round of the MAC Tournament last November.

A preseason MAC coaches poll released Tuesday ranks Kent State fifth in the MAC East Division. Ohio University—the same team that knocked Kent State out of the MAC tournament last November—is the preseason favorite to win the East and the entire conference.

“We think that’s an awesome challenge and it’ll be fun to be the underdog,” Bridget Wilhelm said. “(Gromala) said take what you will from (the ranking) and we won’t discuss it any more than that, but we know the message he wants us to get is working hard and take that…to better us and inspire us at every practice.”

Ball State is expected to win the MAC West, according to the poll.

Gromala would not release the starting lineup yet but anticipates healthy competition to drive the team to success this season.

“Everyone wants to play, but I think deep down we all know what it takes to be a good team…everyone knows their role and is willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Koller said.

Flashback: 2013 in a hurry

  • MAC conference record: 6-10
  • MAC tournament finish: First round loss to Ohio University
  • Key returnees in 2014: Kaylee Koller, Liz Reikow, Kelly Hutchison, Bridget Wilhelm
  • Key losses in 2014: Hannah Herc, Aleksandra Nowak, Blanca Cifaldi

Of the 18 girls on the roster, only 16 can travel with the team to conference matchups, something that Hutchison believes will help elevate the competitive nature.

“It’s definitely going to up the competitive edge between everybody and everyone’s going to be fighting for a spot, which is really cool in my opinion because it makes everybody work that much harder,” Hutchison said.

The team’s renewed sense of leadership might come from hopes that the team can deliver wins in close matches, something the Flashes struggled with last season.

“As a team, I think attitude-wise, we were pretty good last year but I think we want to keep improving that,” Wilhelm said. “We’ve struggled with mental toughness in the past, losing a couple close sets and we want that eliminated.”

Koller said while defense is an important component of the game, the team is seeking to improve their overall play as well.

“What we are trying to improve on as a whole is the entire game, trying to make the entire game look good and flow seamlessly,” Koller said.

There are eight underclassmen on the team that Gromala said have some things to learn, but are already adjusting to the program’s system.

“All the (returning players) know what we are looking to do offensively and defensively, but we’ve been really impressed,” Gromala said. “Everybody that’s new to the program this year have gotten better in just a few weeks.”

The Flashes open the season at Mercer Friday in the College of Charleston Invitational. Gromala said the team will take the nonconference contest as an opportunity to figure out who works well together on the floor.

“Not that these matches don’t matter as much, but the wins in the conference are going to matter more than the nonconference segment,” Gromala said. “It’s good preparation and a good gauge to see how good we’re going to be.”

Contact Jimmy Miller at [email protected].