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Minium: It was a Difficult Weekend for ODU Volleyball, but Monarchs are on The Right Track

Keith Lucas

By Harry Minium

NORFOLK, Va. – Like any competitor, Fred Chao hates to lose. But give the Old Dominion volleyball coach credit for having a grounded sense of perspective.

His Monarchs dropped a closely-fought, exhausting, five-set match to Florida International Friday night that took 2 ½ hours at the ODU Volleyball Center. Then, on Saturday afternoon, they were swept by the Panthers in three sets, including a 21-8 shellacking in the second set.

The losses dealt a serious blow to the chances for ODU (11-11, 3-5 Conference USA) to make the Conference USA tournament, which the Monarchs host next month. The Monarchs would have to win their final four matches, including two at No. 19 Western Kentucky, to have a chance to make the tournament.

"That's tough, it's disappointing," Chao said. "That's where I wanted to be this year. Having that not come to fruition is a tough pill to swallow."

But the glass is half full, not half empty, he added. And what's in the glass, he said, "is delicious."

This is only ODU's second season of volleyball, and because of the pandemic, the Monarchs didn't have the usual time to practice and improve during the offseason. ODU volleyball made its debut last spring instead of last fall, meaning there were only a few months between seasons.

Moreover, because the NCAA granted every athlete an additional year of eligibility to compensate for the pandemic, ODU's opponents all got better. Most teams kept all the seniors they wanted to keep, in addition to bringing in more recruiting talent.

Given that the schedule was more difficult this year than last, when the Monarchs finished 7-11, an 11-11 record doesn't look too bad.

ODU has developed a good home-court advantage.

"We're better than we were last season, but our opponents are all better, too," Chao said. "Practically speaking, the gap from last season is still there. We're trying to make gains as fast as possible to close the gap. But we need a full offseason.

"A lot of these other teams, with juniors and seniors and super seniors on the court, they've already had four offseasons to improve."

Chao's recruiting helped ODU get better. Redshirt sophomore Hailey Duncan and graduate student Alessia Sgherza are ODU's two leading scorers, yet four true freshmen – Myah Conway, Kira Smith, Teresa Atilano and Madelyn Grunza – rank among the top eight.

Chao said ODU's 2022 recruiting class will be his best and that means competition for playing time will be even more difficult next fall.

On Saturday, Chao's team trailed 14-9 in the third set and appeared to be exhausted. Chao called a timeout and spoke calmly to the Monarchs, telling them if they keep doing what they're doing, the results are going to be the same.

He challenged them to play better, harder and smarter.

A few minutes later, the Monarchs tied the score 22-22 and the home crowd was going nuts.

FIU then called a timeout and rallied and won the set, 25-23. But it's a good sign that after being blown out in the second set, the Monarchs kept fighting.

"Yes, it is dispiriting to lose a set like that," he said.

"But our team has shown they are resilient. We can play, we can compete, we can do some really good things.

"The reality of it is, we haven't had the time we need to close the gap with the upper quarter of Conference USA."  

The Monarchs have developed quite a home-court advantage, and that was with far less time to promote because of the shortened timeline forced by the pandemic.

The nearly 900 seats in the ODU Volleyball Center were a little less than half full Saturday, but each time the Monarchs claimed a point, the noise reverberated throughout the intimate facility.

The pep band added to the festive atmosphere. Chao said the local volleyball community has been supportive, and at times, so have ODU students.

"Our fan support has been good and great and it's getting awesome," he said. "I think the band is fantastic. They add so much to the environment and as people are starting to come to our games, they're coming back.

"For us, it's getting out the word to everybody, including students. It's an easy team to support, you're in climate control, you've got the band here and it's an environment where you can express yourself, and be heard."

And, I would add, you can see the Roaseann Runte Quad, six residential housing buildings where 1,500 students live, from Chao's office.

Chao said assistant coaches Becca Lamb and Adam McLamb and volunteer coach Aaron Ahloe, have worked hard.

"The staff has done a great job of maximizing everyone's ability," he said.

"The problem is, we haven't had that chance to work with everyone individually to increase the gestalt of it all."

That time to improve will come in the offseason. And make no mistake about it – Chao and his staff are building a program that will eventually compete for championships.

Minium was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in his 39 years at The Virginian-Pilot and won 27 state and national writing awards. He covers ODU athletics for Follow him on Twitter @Harry_MiniumODU, Instagram @hbminium1 or email