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Minium: In Spite of Losing Record, ODU's Volleyball Program Had a Promising First Season

Keith Lucas

By Harry Minium

Losing the last seven matches of the season was difficult for Old Dominion University volleyball coach Fred Chao and his players to accept. You never want to lose, even when realistically, your opponents have more talent and more experience.

Yet in spite of that frustrating finish, this was a terrific season for ODU's first volleyball team ever.

The team got off to a remarkable start, winning seven of its first eleven matches, including victories against established volleyball programs such as Florida International, a memorable comeback against Middle Tennessee, a 3-2 victory over UNC Wilmington and a two-match sweep of Florida Atlantic.

Nothing like that was expected from a group of players that had never played together and had to figure out how to mesh with their teammates, and develop a team personality, all on the run.

But then came the meat of the schedule:two matches at Charlotte, two more at home with Marshall, two home matches against ationally ranked and undefeated Conference USA powerhouse Western Kentucky and a 3-1 regular season finale loss at home against West Virginia.

The result was as predictable as it was hard to swallow. The Monarchs lost them all and finished 7-11.

Even in that final match against West Virginia, ODU showed remarkable resilience against an established Power 5 program. ODU lost the first two sets, including a 25-22 defeat in the second set, and yet managed to win the third set, 25-20.

ODU showed toughness at other times. The Monarchs trailed Middle Tennessee, 2-1, after losing the last two sets a day after dropping a 3-2 heartbreaker to the Blue Raiders. Yet they managed to win the final two sets, 25-23 and 15-13 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

"Conviction won the day," Chao said shortly after the match. "Today we played with conviction to do our jobs, and the intensity to remain focused throughout. The team stepped up to the mark, and we continue to grow."

The growth process is not one that will take just one season. It may take a year or two before ODU competes for a Conference USA championship.

"I'm pleased with where we are right now," Chao said. "If you had asked me at the beginning of the season what our record might be, I'm not sure I thought then that we would win seven matches."

Yet that doesn't' mean Chao is complacent, nor are his players.

"I think the way we finished, the gaps that we saw in athleticism and physicality, we know that we need to compensate for that," he said. "We need to let our strength coach work with our players, getting them stronger and faster to play a style of volleyball that can overcome some of the power and size advantages we faced."

ODU loses just one player, Sasha Grigoreva, a junior from Moscow, Russia, who will graduate in May and then make an interesting transition. She has accepted a scholarship from ODU rowing coach Dan Garbutt.

Eleven freshmen, a junior and graduate student Alessia Sgherza return, including three players who ranked among the top ten in Conference USA statistics – freshman Olivia De Jesus, eighth in blocks; freshman Teresa Atilano, seventh in assists; and freshman Jamie Bissmeyer, tenth in service aces.

Chao has already completed his recruiting for next season. Although he isn't ready to release any names, he has signed two players and has a third coming as a walk-on.

The newcomers will bring more talent to the team, said Chao, and will challenge the returnees. That's a part of college and professional athletics at every level. Every coach attempts to better his or her talent pool by recruiting better players.

"Part of our job if we're going to grow this team is to continue to work hard to recruit better athletes, better volleyball players," he said. "But we tell our returning players, the flip side of that is that we will work harder to make you better.

"That's how a program grows, and we're committed to growing.

"We did some really good things to get this program off the ground, but we're telling them that they have to get better."

Asked about his favorite memory of this season, Chao said "the MTSU match will stick out in my mind for sure, but I think overall the memories of how we got better and how good things were when we executed."

The ODU volleyball debut was moved from the fall into the spring because of the pandemic. That gives Chao and his players a short time to turn around and play again.

Attendance was also limited because of the pandemic. Next fall, ODU hopes to fill all of the nearly 900 seats in the ODU Volleyball Center, a $3.1 million facility that opened this spring.

"To hear what it was like with 100 or 200 people in there when we were playing some matches, to hear how people were responding and were in our corner, that was just amazing," Chao said.

"It's going to be an even more amazing atmosphere when we start putting capacity crowds in there."

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