By Sean Chase
Due to COVID-19, the last time the Grand Rapids Community College Volleyball team took the floor for a match was in Nov. 2019. However, after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer removed the ban on non-contact sports, they finally have a start date.
On Feb. 12, the team ranked fourth in the nation by the latest National Junior College Athletic Association coaches poll, will welcome the Vikings of Glen Oaks Community College into the Gordon Hunsberger Arena. While they’re excited to get the season underway, Chip Will, head coach of the GRCC volleyball team, feels like the rankings aren’t going to affect the mentality of his players.
“A lot of the early season rankings are based on, obviously, your success last year, and the returners you have coming in,” said Will. “I think our kids are pretty grounded as far as expectations. Obviously, the rankings are a huge honor, for how much across the country people respect our school and our program.”
Volleyball is normally played during the fall semester, but due to COVID-19, this season will be completely different. After shortened practices in the fall, the team was able to fully start practices in January. However, they were forced to deal with the same starting and stopping as every GRCC team whose season was pushed back.
“Pushing the season back was obviously challenging for our kids,” said Will. “We’ve taken the motto of being where your feet are and that means just kind of being present in the moment and being present in trying to get better on that day. We’re really trying to take each day one at a time, each rep one at a time and just find ways to enjoy being around each other. We’ve had a little bit different mindset this year.”
Even though the roster isn’t as large as previous seasons, only having 11 players, Will is proud of his players for being strong mentally and battling through the hardships of COVID-19. Especially the returning sophomores, who’ve stepped up as leaders through all of the changes.
“All of our sophomores are really, really talented,” said Will. “I think the group’s mentality has changed from when they were freshmen to sophomores, to really becoming better leaders. They’ve really taken control of the team, helping some of the younger kids because things are so different. We didn’t have a pre-season, we don’t have two-a-days. The sophomores have definitely bought into what the season is going to look like. Just as much as the play, I’m just as proud of the kids off the court and what those sophomores have done.”
Those returning sophomores are Annie Holesinger, an outside hitter who had 376 kills last season, Kailey Carmean, a setter who had 421 assists last season, Kylie Oberlin, a middle blocker who had 200 kills last season and Gabi Kitley, an outside hitter who had 96 kills last season.
They will also be joined by a stellar freshmen class, and two players transferring from different athletics programs at GRCC, Zari Kruger, a former GRCC basketball player, and Savannah Stoepker, a former GRCC softball player.
“In the fall of this school year, I had started preseason practices with the softball team,” said Stoepker, in an email. “We were able to practice outside two times a week for a few hours. When the opportunity for me to join the volleyball team came to light, it was the last week of their preseason practices, and the softball team had already finished their preseason. I got to practice with the volleyball team for their last two practices, and following those practices, I was offered a spot on the team.”
For Stoepker the opportunity to get back to a sport she loved was too much to pass up.
“This past summer I played in several beach volleyball tournaments where I had the pleasure of competing against some pretty skilled adults,” said Stoepker. “It had been over a year since I had played volleyball at that level, and it definitely made me miss the intensity of the game. The fast-paced nature of volleyball is one of my favorite parts about the game, and though I love softball, it lacks the same speed. When the opportunity arose for me to switch to volleyball, I knew that I should take the shot because of how much I missed playing.”
One unforeseen consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic was how shutting the campus down for extended periods of time would hurt the volleyball team’s recruiting.
“I feel like if we can show the kids our gym, our new renovations in the locker room, the campus, how close everything is, we have a pretty good chance of getting the kids,” said Will. “But, obviously, when the gym was shut down and the school was shut down, we went months without being able to have recruits on campus.”
After 14 years of dominance, Coach Will was able to plan accordingly once the GRCC campus opened back up, to allow athletes to experience the Ford Fieldhouse facilities.
“We did a nice job this year of making sure early on when everything was open, that we were able to get everyone in,” said Will. “We’ve been conscious of when things are available to show the kids. We want to make sure we’re taking advantage of that time because we know it could be short-lived.”
Will believes even though they aren’t the deepest team on paper, that they will be a problem for teams in the conference.
“We’re very physical,” said Will. “We have some great athletes on our team. We can be overwhelming offensively. We have some kids that just work really, really, really hard, and I think if we can match, not only how good we are offensively, but match that same intensity and desire defensively. I think we’re gonna be pretty overwhelming for any team we play in the country because there is no break. I think that’s frustrating when you play somebody like that.”
Normally the atmosphere from the crowd in the Gordon Hunsberger Arena helps the athletes overwhelm their opponents. However, this year fans will not be allowed into the arena to help combat the spread of COVID-19. While this is upsetting for families hoping to see their child perform, GRCC has partnered with Michigan Sports Radio to broadcast and livestream the matches.
“Every single year we have one of the best family followings, crowd followings in the country,” said Will. “At nationals every year, I think we blow away every other team in the country, as far as, the number of parents that travel to watch us. Our school has done a great job with the different cameras they’ve put into the gym and the different livestream options. So there is light at the end of the tunnel for parents to still be able to watch their daughters.”
While another trip to the national tournament would be a nice feather in the cap for Coach Will, who has dominated NJCAA and Michigan Community College Athletic Associations competition for 14 seasons. His ambitions are driven more by having a successful season for his athletes.
“More than anything, I’d be happy for the kids, because they deserve it,” said Will. “I think the kids have bought into a system of success. They really want to win for each other. A lot of people say they want to be great or say they want to win, but the kids that come here, actually live that life. I would be really ecstatic for the kids.”