For all of the games she’s played, for all the matches she’s watched, for all of the teams she’s coached, Deitre Collins, one of the greatest volleyball players in NCAA history, a two-time starter on the U.S. Olympic team, and now Cornell’s head coach, sat by Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater sideline last Friday night with an utterly strange feeling.
She was literally a spectator.
She watched with the boisterous Bulldogs fans who seemed to be right on top of the court, as her team, already down two games to Ivy title contender Yale, was on the ropes, trailing 28-23 in game 3. She started to try to find the words she would say to her girls in the distinct possibility that her team was going to lose, writing a mental speech about staying positive.
But, as Yale served, needing two points to gain victory and earn a share of the Ivy League lead, everything changed.
As the leaves start to fall, night time comes earlier and earlier and winter makes its gloomy arrival, the volleyball team has brought energy to Newman Arena with its play and enthusiasm this year. Any casual sports fan like me, who attended his first match a few weeks ago – three years too late – would be content to find that not only is this squad talented, but, they actually look like they are having fun, giving each other constant encouragement, smiling all the way, and most importantly, playing seamlessly as a team.
It was not all smiles last year however, as the Red ended up in a four-way Ivy playoff for the automatic spot in the national tournament. Cornell beat Princeton, but fell to nemesis Yale, a team which had already beaten the Red twice that season, 3-2. In the final game, Cornell lost 15-13. Two points away from triumph. But for the Red, it was a night of heartbreak.
Perhaps the adage of, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” directly applies to the volleyball team. Because according to Collins, ever since that final point fell, the team was on a mission this year.
“We remembered the feeling of how we felt after we lost to [Yale] and remembered that we didn’t want to feel like that ever again,” says senior co-captain Whitney Fair.
With that as its fuel, the team trained hard in the spring and had the chance travel to Italy to compete against teams from around the continent over two weeks this past summer. The trip in itself was unusual, since Collins was just finishing her first year as a coach and those types of tours take years to plan. Spending time with the same people for 14 days straight, 24 hours a day, could also potentially cause rifts. But, Collins knew that it was important.
“Our goal has always been where we’re at right now and we wanted this past summer to make an impact on that,” she says.
Not only was the team able to get all-important game time against good teams, but unbreakable bonds of friendship were formed by the experience of visiting a foreign country, touring the Colosseum, and having dinner at a small cafe in Rome at midnight to celebrate senior co-captain Kelly Kramer’s 21st birthday.
This camaraderie among the squad’s members, who played intramural inner-tube water polo last spring, shows when they take the court, and it is heartening to perceive there are no individual egos to massage, no individuals who are out of place. They are a real team, and Collins says it’s the closest squad she’s ever coached.
“These are my best friends and we all live within a block of each other. We’re the first ones to call each other and hang out outside of volleyball,” Kramer says. “If there was a conflict that occurs at practice, it’s dropped immediately the minute we leave the gym and I think that’s something that’s really unique about our team and that we all cherish and maintain.”
What’s also particularly striking about the squad is the unique nature of its individuals. Unlike most Cornellians, none come from New York or New Jersey, while seven of the 18 girls are from California. Kramer says that the team learns something different everyday – from daily life in Jackson Hole, Wyo., from junior Alaina Town, to breaking it down in the locker room and learning a Brazilian dance from Sau Paolo native Thais Mirela. Collins herself graduated from Hawaii and stayed on the West Coast for most of her life.
But there’s another inherent quality you’d find if you watch the girls play – a quiet, but obvious confidence not only in themselves, but in each other.
The team needed this confidence at Yale. Heading into the match, the Red was 7-0 in the league, beating every Ancient Eight team including Yale, 3-1, at home – a big hurdle Cornell had to overcome.
But, the Red knew it could not rest on its laurels. It remembered last year, when it had its destiny in its own hands and dropped it by losing key matches to other teams during the season. It was a year older, a year wiser, a year stronger and a year more determined.
So although they went down 2-0 going into the third game last Friday, after dropping a tough 35-33 decision in the second, the team was calm.
“Before [the third game], I was like, ‘Are you nervous, because I’m nervous,’ and they were like, ‘No, we’re not nervous,'” Collins says, laughing now.
And down at 28-23, Kramer still can’t figure out what happened next. Amid “warm up the bus” taunts, senior Rachel Adomat recorded a kill. Then, juniors Liz Bishop and Joanna Weiss blocked a Yale kill, before sophomore Kara Zaragoza hit a service ace and Yale committed an attack error. Yale called timeout, but it didn’t matter. Weiss and Fair tied the game at 28 with a block, before a Bulldogs kill gave the hosts match point. But, a Yale set error and a Bishop kill gave the Red a lead, before Cornell pulled out the game, 32-30.
“It was all heart and guts at that point,” Collins says. “They just made up their minds that they were not going to lose.”
And they didn’t. They won the fourth game and played a heart-stopping fifth, which saw multiple ties and ended with a block by senior Heather Young and Bishop for the 19-17 victory – silencing the Yale crowd and whatever inner demons were left from last year.
“We were ecstatic,” Collins says. “I told them I felt like I won a national championship. No matter what happens, that was a big step in Cornell volleyball.”
Perhaps as opposed to last year’s squad, this season’s team, more than ever, realizes that there are no huge leaps, but rather, smaller steps in its quest for an Ivy title and a place in the national tournament. Collins must have been proud when her girls went out and got the job done against Brown the next day, after experiencing the emotional high of the Yale win.
And Kramer and company acknowledge that the team has five more steps starting with Harvard coming to town tomorrow, before Cornell can truly feel safe about making the huge leap into a qualifying spot for the national tournament – something the Red has not done since its first appearance in 1993.
“There’s no way we can’t hope for it, but there’s no way we can’t look past the teams this weekend and that was shown a lot last season that anything can happen in this league,” Kramer said. “By no means could any team be overlooked. We still have five huge matches.”
After the Yale game, the team went to a nearby Friendly’s for dinner. While they weren’t allowed to order any of the restaurant chain’s well-known ice cream sundaes (they had to play the next day), they excitedly chatted about the match they just played – memories, conversations and bonds that will stick with them forever.
And that alone, was more than sweet enough.
Brian Tsao is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Life of Brain will appear every other Thursday this semester.
Archived article by Brian Tsao