A book club and virtual team meetings keep Duke’s volleyball team together amid pandemic

Duke

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Duke volleyball wasn’t immune to the effects of COVID-19. It took their fall season from 31 matches down to just eight but this squad isn’t taking the opportunity for granted.

“We started every practice by saying ‘we get to’ to each other just as a reminder like it’s a privilege that were even able to play this season,” said Duke junior defensive specialist Mackenzie Cole. “Not just go through the motions but really appreciate like every practice and every game we get to do.”

Happy to have a season but it did mean mostly home games. Some would love it but as they explain it does take some of the fun of the road trip with your crew out of the equation.

“We are college athletes and we love traveling with our team,” said Duke junior middle blocker Ade Owokonian. “I love going to airports like fully geared out, everybody’s crackin’ their necks looking at us I do miss that. Otherwise, I’m extremely grateful to be in the position we are in now.”

It’s been a wild ride for Duke. The players left for spring break last March and didn’t get together again until late July. Unlike some who just sat around, they made the most of their time keeping in touch via zoom, starting a book club, and holding virtual team meetings to discuss social issues of the day. The result was the team getting closer as a unit off the court so they could be better on it.

“That really bonded us together because we could look to our team and find stability, find places to talk, people to lean on even if it was through the computer,” said Ade. “I think that really helped us build our culture and help us build our friendships.”

“We kind of came together and had a discussion saying like we have a choice here we have all this time and we can either just go through the motions and sit around or we can actually try and get better and put ourselves in a position to be successful for when we do get back,” said Mackenzie. “We have a great group right now so we were able to have these great discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement about our culture and have it not just be upperclassman but everyone was able to contribute to the conversations which were really special.”

While most of the world was sitting around getting softer the Duke volleyball team was holding each other accountable. Stronger relationships led to stronger players literally.

“None of them had lifting equipment. Very few of us had anything to lift with or had gyms open and they got back to Duke and they were already lifting more than when they left in March,” said coach Jolene Nagel. “I think that takes a real determination when you don’t have the equipment or anything like that and you can still find a way to get stronger.

The result was a red-hot Blue Devils team that started the season 3-0 rolling over N.C. State and Virginia.

Then came UNC.

Duke came out swinging but ended up dropping a hard fought 3-1 decision to their rivals and felt it.

“After the game I think a lot of us were just feeling like cold rage,” said Ade. “Which is what I was feeling. Very icy, not happy like no this is not how this is going to go and I think after that challenge we were locked in.”

“I don’t think we did the best job responding when we were pushed, said Mackenzie. “So then luckily we were able to come back to practice a little bit pissed off a little bit angry.”

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