European Trip Hits Home for Sooners
For some 11 years, University of Oklahoma volleyball coach Santiago Restrepo has dreamed of taking his Sooner team overseas. This past summer that dream came true and for Restrepo and his players, it may still seem a little Oz-like.
From May 22 through June 2, the Sooners spent time in the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Italy. As the chill of November sets in, the importance of the trip is still as fresh as an April morning in Oklahoma.
“It was definitely a very good experience,” Restrepo recalled as his Sooners were coming off a huge win over then second-ranked Texas the last week of October. “The sightseeing, the learning about different cultures and countries, and at the same time playing a different style of volleyball. It was extremely important.”
The trip, allowed for programs every four years under NCAA rules, came at the perfect time. With the loss of All-Conference hitters, Sallie McLaurin and Keila Rodriguez, and with setter and defensive specialist, Kaitlyn Drawe, as his only senior, Restrepo knew well his team was going to need time to come together on and off the court. Those days trekking across Europe provided that time.
“To me it was a huge benefit,” Restrepo said. “We developed some chemistry before the season started. Once you go into preseason, you have two and a half weeks to prepare for the season. That’s not much time to get in synch.”
Among the more important benefits was time to allow two hitters in sophomore Kimmy Gardiner and freshman Marion Hazelwood to step into the shoes of McLaurin and Rodriguez. Both have done so admirably. However, with the extra practice time and more importantly, the time in Europe, Restrepo and his staff had bigger goals in mind. Namely, ensuring his team developed a healthy appreciation of their home.
“Being able to take it all in and being grateful for the opportunity was so important,” Restrepo stressed with his Sooners. “From the get-go, I told the team not too many people have the opportunity to do this in their lives. I thought our group grew up a lot on the trip. It’s very easy to say, ‘what is this food or I don’t want to try that or what is this.’ It’s easy to get into that habit of being spoiled. But, our kids were very mature about the trip.”
Sophomore Madison Ward agreed with her coach that much of the benefit of the overseas journey came in the form of gratitude.
“The most important thing for myself was coming back and realizing I’m spoiled here,” she admitted. “We have everything at our disposal here. We have water in the buckets when we’re thirsty. We don’t have to bring our own water and towels. To see the passion of the girls we played who don’t have that made me step back and realize how beautiful this is.”
Ward admits playing in the dimly lit, tight fitting gyms the Sooners experienced, traveling for 10 days with each other and having time to explore new lands was pivotal to the growth of a young team.
“You don’t know someone until you’re with them in another country for that many days, traveling together, being in small group settings or together as a whole team,” Ward explained. “We’re close, but whenever you’re on a trip and talking about life, it’s great. You go and travel 10 days in different countries, you get to know someone and where they are at.”
Make no mistake; the Sooners also gained some valuable on the court experience. Restrepo said the service-driven European style his team saw from the Croatian, Italian and Czech junior national teams, as well as a Czech professional team, coupled with nuisances such as a different ball, helped with his Sooners on-the-court development.
“The ball floats a lot more,” he pointed out. “It was really good for our passers. They had to move their feet to be in place and be set to pass the ball accurately.”
Ward agreed, the style of play has made her and her teammates better players.
“There were so many different things they were throwing at us,” she said. “Different ways they communicate, different plays they would run. Everything. It was all about the serving game there, so we had to be better about passing. That was huge for my own game. When we got back I felt like I had gotten a little bit of experience under my belt in overcoming different situations.”
The experience the Sooners gained has resulted in a 16-6 overall record after the beating the Longhorns the last week of October and opening November with a win over West Virginia. At 7-2 and in second place in the Big 12 Conference, the Sooners are ranked 25thin the country. Still, Ward isn’t satisfied.
“We don’t need to focus on the Texas win so much as the games coming up,” Ward said. “We have to put it into perspective as kind of we haven’t really done anything yet. We have to keep pushing forward.”
While still looking for more from the portion of the season that lies ahead, both Ward and Restrepo believe everything was wrung out of the European volleyball adventure.
“When you go into the gyms in others country, it’s incredible the difference,” Restrepo emphasized as he looked around a transformed McCasland Fieldhouse. “We’re more appreciative of what we have. For the most part, we have very down-to-earth kids. But, sometimes you have to bring them back down. You have to say, ‘hey, look at this gym. Did you see a gym like this while you were in Europe?
“It was the right time and the right place to be able to grow and build great chemistry.”
Ward, who has earned Big 12 Player of the Week honors this year, echoed her coach’s sentiments.
“It was beautiful,” she recalled. “We went down to the Adriatic and jumped in. Stuff like that is something I’ll have a memory of forever. Having volleyball as a part of that made it so much sweeter. The fact we were growing as a team.
“We should never take anything for granted. We’re really blessed.”