(Photo: Noah Findling/WCSN)
If you’d told Arizona State junior middle blocker Whitney Follette that she would be spending two weeks of June in China, she would probably think you were crazy. In fact, she would say that there were other things she would be doing instead.
“I had plans for the summer that had to be changed, such as trying out for Team Canada, but I figured that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I had to take it,” Follette said.
The Pac-12 all-star team, made up of players selected by coaches from the conference, travelled to Beijing and Sanming and played seven matches against the Chinese Junior National team as well as professional teams from around the area.
The overseas trip was the team’s second consecutive tour in China. Only a year ago, fellow Sun Devil outside hitter Macey Gardner represented the conference after her record-setting freshman campaign.
“I was given the opportunity to play with great female athletes that are normally across the net, represent my school, dedicate my time to play solely for one of the greatest volleyball conferences in the country, all-the-while playing the sport I loved on foreign soil,” Gardner said of playing with last year’s Pac-12 all-star team. “It was a very memorable experience that I will never forget.”
Oregon head coach and three-time National Coach of the Year award-winner Jim Moore led the all-star squad compiled of three freshmen, six juniors and three juniors. Some notables on the roster include USC’s Samantha Bricio and Stanford’s Madi Bugg.
“I was pretty nervous about the coaching, just because I love (ASU head coach Jason Watson), and wasn’t sure what Jim Moore was going to coach like,” Follette said. “It turned out very well and he was very kind and understanding of us.”
Over the two week stint, the Pac-12’s finest compiled a record of 4-3, with five of the seven matches going the full five sets. In addition to the grueling travel and long matches, the team faced a completely and literally foreign style of play in China.
“The culture and style of play is completely different in China. As soon as you walk in the arena and view their warm-ups you can sense the difference,” Gardner said. “The teams are uniform in everything that they do.”
The players did not just go from gym to gym, however. They were able to explore some of the Chinese culture and landmarks, including the Great Wall and eat authentic local cuisine.
“I don’t think I’ll eat rice for a year,” Follette said. “And in Sanming the food we ate in had little labels telling us what the dish was. They were so random and inaccurate, it was hilarious.”
The trip provided Follette with the same unique opportunity that Gardner said helped her better understand the constantly growing game of volleyball.
“The China trip really opened my eyes, and maybe Whitney’s too, to the fact that in order to advance to the next level, you have to be adaptable, malleable, and open-minded. Learn to learn,” Gardner said. “Open your eyes and see that there is more information brewing about this sport than you could have ever imagined.”
Follette is not the only Sun Devil learning to learn this summer. Sophomore outside hitter McKenzie Willey and junior middle blocker Mercedes Binns spent time with the USA Collegiate National team program as well.
The USA Collegiate National Team program held their annual championships and training programs in Minneapolis, MN in late June. ASU assistant coach Linda Hampton-Keith also served as one of the coaches at the program.
The players were selected based on a tryout that was held in Colorado Springs, CO during the month of February at the Olympic Training Center.
“I’ve been blessed to have been part of the USA pipeline since I was about 13 years old, and so I’ve been playing with many of these girls every summer of my volleyball career,” Willey said. “Being at the Olympic Training Center may seem very intimidating at times but it’s an amazing place.”
While Willey, who racked up 149 kills during her freshman year, found comfort among the national program, which was led by former national team coaches Mike Hebert and Bill Neville, Binns was a bit more anxious following the tryout process.
“When I first found out, I was in complete shock because I didn’t think I tried out well enough to make any of the teams,” Binns said.
Binns, who posted 138 kills with a .243 hitting percentage in 2013, felt that she is coming into the 2014 season much more prepared because of her experience with the USA program, and all three players were adamant in how much the experiences improved their flexibility on the court.
Back in familiar territory with six starters returning to Tempe, the Sun Devils will continue to gear up for their season opener on August 29 against San Diego State University with high hopes and high expectations.
“I honestly just expect all of the girls to be there involved completely in the process of getting better for each other,” Binns said. “I expect everyone to come to practices with the intent to be better than the day before. As long as that happens everything else should follow.”
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.