Bump! Set! Spike! Except this spike was blocked awry—ricocheting off a Vassar palm and heading rapidly towards the spectator stands. Sophomore Jamie Kesten quickly changed direction and sprinted for the stands, trying to save her team a much-needed point. But alas, the volleyball hit the bleachers first. Kesten stopped just short of the crowd—a second too late. Her grit wasn’t left unnoticed though, as fellow teammate and sophomore Claire Bialek rushed right behind her, pointing directly at Kesten yelling, “Nice hustle!”
This scene perfectly captures the sphere of positivity and unity surrounding this year’s volleyball team, despite battling through a difficult off-season marked by the loss of talented seniors and the unexpected departure of several upperclassmen. Yet, this team embraces their humble numbers and overall youth. What was last year a group of 15 is now composed of just 11 student-athletes, nine of whom are underclassmen. Senior captain Jennifer Kerbs explained, “It’s one of those things I know is such an amazing experience for me personally … having this new dynamic and a lot of young people on the team. I think it’s really cool and different, unique experience.”
Having fewer players on the squad does come with certain advantages. When asked about the dynamic of a smaller team and how it shifted the team’s focus, Head Coach Jonathan Penn said, “People tend to get more attention, your dynamics tend to be a little tighter, [and] you don’t have as many issues with playing time often.” Sophomore Sara Ehnstrom added, “It’s easier to have [a] really good, positive team dynamic and get to know each other really well and develop individual friendships.” However, there are clear negative effects as well: inability to scrimmage, added fatigue, heightened worries over injuries. Penn emphasized, “It can be hard in practice sometimes, and, of course, from a strategic standpoint, not having a lot of depth is sometimes limiting.”
Despite how the team welcomes the new reality of this year’s smaller team, the losses of last season’s graduating seniors, including All-American Devan Gallagher ’19, Vassar’s second all-time kills leader with 1,536, plus the loss of then-junior Jane McLeod, a three-time All-Liberty League team member, are nonetheless still felt deeply. “Losing stats is sometimes the most challenging part. We lost 700 kills. And that’s just that. You can have the best recruiting, [the best] freshman class. [But] 700 kills is 700 kills. It is always going to hit you,” emphasized Penn. Yet, stats aren’t the only thing this team wants to focus on reclaiming. They also are determined to strengthen their culture. Penn summarized, “I think we focus a lot on being guided by everything that we do, we do with passion, we let our actions be guided by whether or not it’s something we can be proud of and that we will always be together. It’s that unity that the team is the team is the team.” The dynamic of a smaller team also necessitates a sense of equality, as every player becomes essential in the long run of the season. “We lost a lot of key players that we relied on a lot and [our] go-tos. But now [everyone] on this team is equally valued, not that they weren’t last season, but I feel like everyone gets an equal amount of touches on the court and we really need everyone on the court to work together,” affirmed Ehnstrom.
Still, the team isn’t trying to minimize the impact of the players they lost and wants to be realistic about their capabilities. Kerbs asserted, “One of the key differences between playing this year and last year is this year we are relying so much more heavily on being smart and playing smart as opposed to being just physically really big and having a lot of experience. Because we do lack experience on this team, so that’s one thing I think we have really been utilizing is playing smart and knowing our scout.” Kesten further added, “I think with having a small number of upperclassmen, we definitely have less experience. I think this might lead to a bit less comfortability on the court. One thing that comes with spending years on the court is feeling comfortable and at ease. It can be hard for freshmen and sophomores to gain this as this just comes with time on the court.”
The team will be forced to get comfortable quickly with a difficult Liberty League schedule coming up, featuring matches against Bard, Union and Skidmore that will all take place within the next 10 days. Despite the probability that their season will fall short of previous seasons (while last year’s team reached the Liberty League semifinals, this year’s is looking unlikely to even qualify), the effects of this rebuilding year should pay dividends in seasons to come. The team will have no seniors next year, so the current sophomore class, which accounts for six of the 11 current players, will be asked to lead for the next two years. Having such a small roster has led to increased time on the court for every member of the team, developing the crucial chemistry and experience needed to compete at the highest level. And most of all, the current underclassmen will have bonded through this challenge. They have the opportunity to solidify their game because of the unavoidable circumstances of a young team that must grow together. So while this may be a down year for Vassar women’s volleyball, try to catch a game— you may be watching the 2021 Liberty League Champions.