By Jordan Holloway
The UNC-Chapel Hill men’s club volleyball team competed in a tournament at UNC Charlotte on Feb. 29, 2020. Little did they know, that would be their final competition for the next 19 months.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced club sports at UNC-CH to pause practices and games for an unknown amount of time.
Sports clubs were given the green light to resume regular practices and competitions in the fall 2021 semester.
Despite a lengthy hiatus, the men’s club volleyball team seemed to not have missed a beat or lost any skills, with their “A” and “B” teams placing first and third in their first tournament of the semester on Sept. 25, 2021.
Strong chemistry and strong relationships
Drew Campbell, the club’s president, speaks highly of the players’ passion for the game. Despite the pause in practices and competitions, he thinks both teams were successful in the recent tournament because of their great relationships with one another.
“I think that since we have had such great chemistry over the years and seeing it carry over into this year, that is definitely one of the reasons we were victorious in our first tournament,” Campbell said.
Despite men’s volleyball not being very popular in North Carolina, the club is still able to draw players who are eager to learn more about the sport and have fun at the same time.
Campbell thinks the players’ eagerness and dedication have allowed them to gel well together and be successful on the court recently.
“At the end of the season, I hope the guys on the team will be able to look back and be confident that they got better at the sport, but also built strong relationships with their teammates,” he said.
Because of the lengthy pause in both practices and competitions, Campbell hopes the team enjoys the time they have together playing the game and becoming better teammates.
“We learned a bunch about how much we all love playing volleyball when we weren’t allowed to play during the pandemic,” Campbell said. “I told the guys to enjoy every second because it could be taken away at any point if COVID cases begin to spike again.”
Practice makes perfect
Jalen Johnson, a senior and four-year member of the club, did not play volleyball before coming to UNC-CH. However, he had a strong interest in the game and wanted to develop his skills.
Johnson did not try out for the club team the first semester of his freshman year. Instead, he joined an intramural team that played once a week to help him learn more about the sport.
“I wanted to try out for the team my first semester, but I thought I didn’t know much about the game so I wouldn’t be quite ready,” he said. “Joining an IM team was awesome because I got to gradually learn more and more about the sport every week, while also having fun with friends.”
Johnson believes the practice he received playing intramural every week allowed him to hone the skills needed to join the club team.
Now, he is the starting right side attacker for the club team, but he’s also a leader that the younger players on the team can look up to.
“I think the story of the team’s success recently really aligns with my story and how practicing really does make you better,” Johnson said. “I’ve noticed in the past that some guys haven’t really bought in to the team and missed several practices. This year I think it’s different because we have guys that are always consistently at practice, and I think the results from that were seen at our first tournament a few weeks ago.”
A fresh start
Creed Mainz, a junior on the men’s club volleyball team, believes that the return to normalcy from the pandemic has been no easy task, but being able to play volleyball again has made the transition much easier.
“Putting that jersey on again is such an amazing feeling that words cannot describe,” Mainz said.
One of the aspects that Mainz thinks is unique about the club team this year is the mix of older and younger players.
“We have an interesting mix of guys this year which allows everyone to create new friendships,” he said. “As an older player, I have already made great friends with some of the younger guys on the team, and I think that has allowed us to grow not only on the court, but off the court as well.”
Mainz believes the mix of younger and older talent has allowed the team to develop new plays. It also creates a better offensive and defensive threat, which was noticeable in the recent tournament.
“In previous years, I think some of the more local teams like State and Duke were knowledgeable about what plays we ran and who our better players were,” he said. “After the COVID pause, we not only were able to create new plays but we got new weapons in the younger guys that we could implement into our game plan.”
Trust in your teammate
Andy Jin, one of the underclassmen on the team, is no stranger to the sport. He played consistently prior to college, both on his high school team in Maryland and on an AAU club team.
Jin believes an important aspect of any team is trust. Although it is still early in the season, he thinks the team members have already developed a strong reliance on one another, evident in tight sets during the first tournament.
“One game that really sticks out in my mind was the ‘A’ team’s final game against UNC Wilmington,” he said. “We were in the final set and we were down two points. We took a timeout, and the guys really stepped up and placed trust in one another to come back from the deficit. And we did that, scoring four straight points to take the victory.”
Jin is thankful to be able to play volleyball in college. Because of the pandemic, his high school seasons were interrupted. But now, he is able to continue playing the sport he loves so deeply.
“I am so glad to have a great group of guys that I can continue playing volleyball with in college,” Jin said. “The older guys have been so welcoming and have made this transition from high school to college — but also pandemic life to a more sense of ‘normalcy’ — worthwhile.”
Edited by Claire Tynan