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For love of the game: Island volleyball coach attends national finals

Most readers of the Reporter know I love volleyball. I played it in college quite some time ago, just after the passage of Title IX and before women’s volleyball was in the NCAA. Currently my focus is coaching and passing on my passion for the game.

Over the years, the game has evolved. To keep current and to get my fix of high-level volleyball, I often attend the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s annual convention, the largest gathering of volleyball coaches in the world.

Held in conjunction with the Final Four of the women’s NCAA Division 1 championship, it rotates to different regions of the US. Initially encouraged to attend by my mentor, Kathy “Stranny” McGeehan, long-time coach of East Hampton, I have attended multiple conventions and just returned from Columbus, Ohio.

Shelter Island is a very small school, and to go to the AVCA convention is both inspiring and intimidating. The convention attracts thousands of coaches hailing from all over the U.S., and a few from overseas. The majority are college coaches, although I did meet club and high school coaches, as well.

The over 100 educational sessions range from classroom presentations to on-court sessions demonstrated by volunteer athletes. The presenters range from Olympic and premier collegiate coaches to owners of local clubs who might have an innovative way to train athletes.

Opinions vary from year to year: Does the game teach the game or do athletes need skill specific training? Are motor learning patterns transferrable? What is the most productive or successful coaching styles? I listen carefully to learn what I can take back to the team to make us better or more current.

Shelter Island players will appreciate that I had a clipboard with me and took lots of notes.

Part of the convention experience is rubbing elbows with legends. Cindy, US Olympic coach Karch Karily and Donna Fischer meet up in 2019. (Photo by Kathy McGeehan)

What I found most striking this year was the focus on team unity, mental health, and being invested in players as a whole, not just as an athlete. Although the Olympic gold medal winning women’s U.S. team didn’t field the best individual athlete at any one position, they “out teamed” the opposition by building trust and focusing on interpersonal relationships.

That philosophy forcefully reminded me a lot of the way our hometown Islanders approach the sport.

A highlight of the convention is the national championship matches. Held in the Nationwide Arena, the matches had all the trimmings of a professional sporting event. Red carpet arrivals of the teams past cheering fans, rousing music, frenetic lighting, huge scoreboards, pep bands and cavorting mascots made for an entertaining spectacle.

The Thursday night semi-finals featured the undefeated Louisville Cardinals against the Wisconsin Badgers. The newly dominant Pittsburgh Panthers faced off against perennial top performers Nebraska Cornhuskers. I was hoping for a Louisville-Pitt final. The Cardinals are led by Coach Dani Busboom Kelly, with the chance to have “DBK” become the first woman D1 coach to win a national title.

Pitt’s program is a model of diversity and inclusiveness and has worked hard to become an elite program.

The whistle for the first serve was at 7 p.m., but the final point of the second match wasn’t scored until 1 a.m. Wisconsin outlasted Louisville in a 5-set marathon, while Nebraska’s poise in the spotlight overcame Pitt’s high flying offense in a 4-set thriller.

On Saturday, Dec. 18, the arena was a sea of red as Big 10 rivals Wisconsin and Nebraska duked it out for the national title. The Badgers blocking was tremendous, aided by talented 6’8” and 6’9” athletes. Nebraska’s offense was on fire, generating exciting rally after rally.

In the end, Wisconsin prevailed in 5 sets over the Cornhuskers for their first national championship. After the final point in the long match was called for Wisconsin, the team flooded the court, and ecstatic fans roared their approval and appreciation for their teams.

At the end as confetti flew and tears flowed, I was struck by the similarity between this and the far, far smaller county championship that Shelter Island played this fall. Whether you are being broadcast on ESPN, live streamed on the NFHS channel, or not being filmed at all, it doesn’t matter. A group of young women had worked together to hone their skills, unite as a team and to play their best when it counted.

It is the game and the relationships that are important. It is a chance to make life-long memories and friendships — and the reason I return to the court season after season.