NCAA Teams Cross the Ponds

Liz Brenner explores the Wall of China during the Pac-12 All-Star team's trip to China.

Things will be a little different in the Pac-12 this year. At least for 12 of the league’s top players and a few coaches, including Oregon junior outside hitter Liz Brenner, who was part of the conference’s all-star team that went to China this summer.

“You know, you play all these teams and you know who their best players are and you compete against them,” Brenner said, “and it was so cool to meet them and actually become friends with them.”

That even seemed to surprise coach Mick Haley, the USC veteran who led the contingent. He’d been to China before and wasn’t that thrilled about going back for “a long 12 days.” But the non-volleyball part was outstanding.

“I don’t like to like the opponent, but I really liked those kids,” Haley said. “They were certainly fun and I was allowed to enjoy them on this trip. That’s a pretty special thing, for sure.”

This was a big year for international travel for women’s college volleyball teams and for all-star and national teams. Last spring they set off on trips all over, many to Europe, for a time of competition, bonding and simply learning new things in new places. The NCAA allows a program to travel internationally once every four years.

There are all sorts of way to organize and run such trips, but many employ the travel services of former UCLA player Tim Kelly and his Bring It Promotions. This was the biggest year ever for his business, Kelly said.

“It’s a full resurgence since the recession,” Kelly said. “A lot of schools have had [travel] moratoriums the last three to five years. They’re all coming out and we had more teams than we ever had. And what’s more impressive is the teams we had.”

Three of last year’s final four teams, Penn State, Texas, and Michigan, went on Bring It tours. So did Duke, Northern Iowa, Purdue, Missouri State, Georgia, Metro State, Notre Dame, Illinois, LSU, Northwestern, and Washington, among others. In the case of Penn State and Texas, the teams brought along booster groups. Kelly said few things went wrong this year including no pick-pocket mishaps, a first.

“The neat thing about the volleyball world is that it’s a pretty cool group of people,” Kelly said. “I’m not going to say everyone is the same, but the demographic, especially when you’re dealing with women’s volleyball, is fairly well-educated people with good manners who are able to have their eyes open and enjoy themselves and see stuff in a way that makes it fun.”

LSU went to Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, where, in the tiny town of Pordenone, they became surprise guests of honor and were feted by the mayor.

Michigan went to South American and saw shows featuring the tango and samba.

Colorado’s Nicole Edelman fell in love with Prague.

And in the middle of Iowa, a set of 7-year-old twins are counting down the next four years.

Bobbi Peterson, a former star player at Northern Iowa, is starting her 20th year as a coach at the school, 14th as head coach. She saw the value of international travel as far back as when she played at UNI from 1986-89. Those are her twins, by the way, but more on that later.

“We travel internationally every four years,” Peterson said. “And we’ve done it since the mid-1980s. It’s something we’ve made a commitment to fundraise for, because it’s a great opportunity for our kids.”

In UNI’s case, on a team in which only one player had been overseas, those fundraising efforts included a golf outing, parking cars at the school’s events, working concession stands, “and some of it is just going out and asking for donations.”

“They work hard to be able to go and it’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of them,” said Peterson.

Northern Iowa’s trip in May took the Panthers to France, Italy, and Spain.

“The time for us was exceptional because we graduated five seniors and then lost our setter, so getting the court experience was an important part,” Peterson said. “But it also lets you figure out team chemistry and leadership. Being together for that amount of time is so helpful, especially since we’re young, but even in years when you’re not, a trip like that makes the bond even stronger even if you already have good team chemistry.”

That was a lesson Lexi Dannemiller of Michigan learned. The junior setter from West Chester, Ohio, is part of a team that shocked the volleyball world last fall when the Wolverines made it to the final four. Her team went to Argentina and Brazil this spring.

“We bonded a lot on the trip. Having been to the final four definitely helped,” Dannemiller said, “but we’ve always had that chemistry and it was magnified on the trip.”

Obviously in South America you would see some different things.

“In Argentina we went to a tango show and it was unlike anything we’d seen before in the States,” Dannemiller said with a laugh. “In Brazil we went to a samba show, so we got to see different styles of dancing.”

Dannemiller said she ate a chicken heart in Brazil “and we also had blood sausage, but they wouldn’t tell us what was in it. But we all had it and it was decent.”

In Brazil, she said, beef was plentiful at the many steakhouses.

Michigan played 10 matches and won nine of them, no doubt riding some of that final four high. Speaking of high, Dannemiller said perhaps her favorite part of the trip was going to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“That was fantastic,” she said.

LSU coach Fran Flory said her team benefited immensely from the competition, but it was a surprise dinner in tiny Pordenone, northeast of Venice not far from Croatia that was the highlight.

“They had never hosted an American university team before,” said Flory, starting her 16th season as head coach in Baton Rouge, her hometown. “The mayor came out, the club owner hosted a dinner for us at a restaurant and they were so appreciative of us coming and being a part of our tour and sharing their culture with us.

“The mayor made a big speech and thanked us for coming.”

Oregon’s Brenner had an amazing 2012-13 school year.

First she led the upstart Ducks to the final four before competing for the school’s women’s basketball team and then the track team. She was a finalist for the AAU’s Sullivan Award, which goes to America’s top amateur athlete. And then she went to China.

“I had never really been out of the country and it was awesome to get know all the good players in your conference and they definitely had some good volleyball teams in China, for sure,” Brenner said. “It was really fun and a new experience for me.”

Brenner said she became tight with Inky Ajanaku, a sophomore at Stanford.

“We were roommates over half the trip and we became really good friends,” Brenner said. “She’s really funny.”

Brenner, whose Oregon teammate Lauren Plum was also on the team, was surprised, she said, to learn that USC libero Natalie Hagglund was a pro surfer. “She surfs pretty much every day and that was so cool to me,” Brenner said.

Of course, they were probably likewise interested in a rare three-sport athlete who has quite sense of humor herself. Brenner’s favorite food on the trip?

“This is going to sound really bad,” she said with a laugh. “But I actually liked the duck. We went to this restaurant and the specialty was duck and it was really good. Definitely my favorite food there.”

Lest you didn’t get it, the Oregon’s mascot is a duck.

“And they cooked it, brought the whole body out to our table and cut off its head and cut it all up right in front of us. We were like, ‘What?’ It was different; it’s a different culture, for sure.”

That wasn’t lost on Haley, whose coaching style is no doubt different than what Brenner was used to at Oregon with Jim Moore. Haley’s assistants were Jen Greeny of Washington State and Beth Launiere of Utah.

“It was very interesting to see how [the players] adjusted to each other,” said Haley, starting his 13th year at USC. “You know, you have the perception of the people you play against and if you haven’t hung out you have no idea if that perception is accurate. Just watching how they got together and I think they had a pretty good time.”

Haley knew some of the players from the recruiting process, he had two his players on the team, Hagglund and Hayley Cronel, and he’s always known UCLA’s Kelly Reeves and her family.

“I had a pretty good time getting to know the kids and I have to tell you I appreciate the respect they gave me,” Haley said. “They did everything I asked them to do and they didn’t fight me and they were positive the whole time. They were better than I could ask for and I’m glad I selected the ones I did.

“And I enjoyed the coaches who went on the trip, too. We had never worked together in any capacity.”

Greeny, Haley said, he knew when she was a player and he was the Olympic coach.

“I appreciated her as an athlete but I had no idea what she was like as a coach. And Beth, she’s pretty competitive so we started out not too great and ended up really good as far as I was concerned. That was really quite fun.”

Another Pac-12 player, Nicole Edelman, is a sophomore setter from Boulder playing at her hometown school, Colorado. Her junior national team experience took her to first to train in Lake Placid, N.Y., before embarking to the Czech Republic for two weeks for the FIVB U-20 World Championships at which the USA placed 17th.

“Our pool had Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Bulgaria, and us,” Edelman said. “We had some tough matches.”

She said thought competing against Brazil was a great experience.

“I loved playing them,” Edelman said.

The best part of the trip, she said, was visiting Prague. “It was beautiful.”

Edelman said she knew many of her teammates from playing on the youth national team, but made a new friend in Stanford’s Kelsey Humphreys, a freshman setter.

“I got along with her really well,” Edelman said. “She was awesome.”

Northern Iowa’s Peterson said on this year's trip, she especially liked going to the Tower of Pisa and discovering new ways for her players to interact with their European opponents.

“I really loved that everybody we played we tried to eat a meal with them after,” Peterson said. “The first couple of times there was not a lot of interaction by our girls, but by the end they embraced that part of it. It’s a neat opportunity to interact and it was nice that those teams would do that, because we got done really late some nights.”

Towards the end of the tour, the team had an eight-hour layover in Paris and took a bus downtown and “we basically saw as much of Paris as you could see. We walked for four hours straight.”

Which was fun for half the Peterson twins.

That’s because, incredibly, Bobbie and her husband, Duane, have two sets of twin daughters. This was the second time the older girls, Baylee and Sydney, now 13, got to go to Europe.

The younger sisters, Jadyn and Payton, now 7, assume their time is next.

“When we got back, the youngest two said OK, we’re going when we’re 11,” Peterson said with a laugh. “Oh my gosh, they’d even calculated that.”

Even at that age they know a good volleyball trip when they see one.

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