The Grand Rapids Community College volleyball team is not only getting ready for the school year, but preparing for a season where expectations couldn’t be higher.
After going 27-3 last season, the Raiders expect to improve this year and go even further into the playoffs, possibly competing for a national championship. Before they can focus on those goals though, they will have to figure out how the new players will mesh with those returning and what the team looks like as a whole.
“Every year is new,” Head Coach Chip Will said. “I think team dynamics are new. We’re kind of figuring out who does things well, what areas we need to improve on, so you know I think that will be our focus early on in the season…I think a lot of that first kind of month is trial and error.”
Although there is always inevitable growing pains with every new team, Raider volleyball is always expected to figure things out and put together successful seasons. GRCC Athletic Director Bill Firn said he thinks that Will and his team will do just that this year.
“Volleyball here is a big deal,” Firn said. “We’re expecting big things from this year’s team just like every year’s team. Right now, it’s building with two-a-days and practicing every day. I liken this to building a foundation of a house. In order for them to be at the end and winning the national championship, the ultimate goal for probably every team, is to build the foundation right now. That’s building relationships with each other so there’s a camaraderie and a closeness.”
This year’s team will definitely have the chance to not only build relationships and camaraderie, but also make memories that will last a lifetime. Three coaches and 18 players will be in Hawaii before the school year starts where they will play four games over the span of five days. Firn said the team raised the money for the trip via fundraisers during the offseason and summer, and that no GRCC funds are being spent. He also said he did not know how much the trip costs or how much money was raised. Their first game in Hawaii is Aug. 16 against Chaminade University in Honolulu.
“It’s gonna be really exciting,” sophomore Ally German said. “Last year we went to Arizona and before we went, we didn’t really know each other, but as soon as you go on that trip, you create bonds. We still talk about our memories from Arizona. So I think even being in a place as beautiful as Hawaii that we’re all just gonna come so much closer and build great friendships.”
German isn’t the only player excited about the trip. Kendra DeJonge, a sophomore from Rockford, thinks this trip will help the team build relationships off the court that could translate into wins on the court.
“Last year, (the Arizona trip) brought our team together,” DeJonge said. “That’s where we formed our chemistry, so I think it will be a good bonding experience, and we get to experience Hawaii!”
This year’s team will need to have strong chemistry as they will be faced with some potential adversity that GRCC volleyball teams typically don’t have to deal with. The Ford Fieldhouse has been closed all summer for renovations and isn’t scheduled to reopen until mid to late December. This means the team won’t be playing on campus this year. Northview High School will be the site of all the team’s home games this season. Will sees this as a challenge, but one that the team can overcome.
“It’ll be difficult obviously being outside of the campus,” Will said. “But for us, it’s just a little bump in the road. For us, just making sure we stay on that path of growth and development. I think it’ll make us tougher kind of having that experience…that we have to be away from our home, but we’ll make it feel as much (like) Raider nation as possible in the gym. But you know it’s one of those things that we knew was coming so it wasn’t like it hit us on the short term. We knew what to expect.”
One of the biggest challenges through this process might not be the playing aspect, but rather the logistics of making sure all the players get to Northview High School on time and together.
“There’s definitely some logistical challenges,” Firn said. “I don’t foresee it being too big of a challenge to just go. You know they’re practicing at Northview High School right now and that’s where their home games will be. So they’re getting plenty of chances to be comfortable in those confines. Getting the players there and back, those are challenges that we’re trying to work with. (The players) are traveling on their own. They’re driving their own cars.”
Even with the adversity of playing off campus for an entire season, the players are making no excuses and know what the task at hand looks like.
“We’re looking to still be ranked high during the preseason,” Sophomore Kayla Salyer said. “Then go into regionals and actually win our regionals and make it to nationals this year.”
This team obviously performs well on the court, but more importantly, off the court. The Raiders’ volleyball team just received the 2017-2018 American Volleyball Coaches Association Team Academic Award. This award is given to teams that best display excellence on the court and in the classroom.
“It’s a testament to who (Will) is bringing in,” Firn said. “The character of the student athletes, their work ethic on and off the court. I think that’s something that typically over year after year, the team is over a 3.0 average and that’s difficult to do with all the different demands that the student athletes have on their schedules. But Coach Will, I think it’s a testament…to the emphasis that he puts on academics.”
Will tries to get the best out of his players in all aspects of life, but make no mistake. When it comes to volleyball, he has his eyes on the prize.
“Ultimately our goal is to win a national title,” Will said. “That happens every single day that we step in the gym, having that mentality, but I think also making sure we’re playing our best at the end of the year.”
The Raiders’ first Michigan Community College Athletic Association action will come when they take on Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Michigan at 6:30 p.m. on Tues., Aug. 28. The first home game for the Raiders will be 6:30 p.m. on Thurs., Aug. 30 at Northview High School located at 4451 Hunsberger Ave. NE in Grand Rapids.
This story was updated on Wed., Aug. 15 at 12:35 p.m. to correct the date of the first home game.