At the end of practice on Wednesday, Head Women’s Volleyball Coach Geoff Braun told his players the story of the 2008 Fredonia volleyball team that went to the Sweet Sixteen.
He told them how they swept Cortland in the SUNYAC Semifinals. He told them how they swept New Paltz in the finals. He told them how they defeated two nationally-ranked teams in the NCAA Tournament. Then, with tears in his eyes, he told them how he wanted that feeling again, not for himself, but for them.
After finishing second in the SUNYAC (8-1) this year and earning a bye into Friday’s conference semifinal, that possibility hasn’t seemed more real since 2008.
Immediately following Coach Braun’s end-of-practice speech, junior captains Kailey Falk (York, N.Y.) and Rachel Aiello (Baldwinsville, N.Y.) discussed what’s made the 2017 season so special:
Jon-Ryan Maloney: We’ve had very talented teams here in the past, but this is the first year in a long time where we’re also playing well and getting better each week. What’s special about this team?
Rachel Aiello: There’s really good relationships off-the-court. On some teams there’s drama and it can be like walking on egg shells. There can be so much tension that players don’t even want to talk to each other. Here, everyone’s comfortable.
Kailey Falk: We’re all actually friends, so you really care when someone is upset and you want to know what’s wrong.
Aiello: And that makes it easier for us to communicate with each other. Now that we’re all so close it’s easy to address people: “Hey, what’s going on?” or “Hey, you shouldn’t be doing this.” There are other teams where you can’t address things without people getting offended.
Maloney: So it’s just the people on this team?
Falk: Yes. There’s not a hierarchy on this team–everyone is equal. It’s not, “You’re a freshman, so you do this; you’re a sophomore, you do this; you’re a junior, you do this.”
Aiello: It’s not, “You need to bow down to me because of where I am on this team.” We’re a full team.
Falk: I’ve played on teams where it’s, “You are a freshman, this is what you will do.” We didn’t do that. It was just, “Welcome.”
Aiello: “This is our team, this is what we do.” We all have our individual jobs and we all do the same things. It’s not making specific people do things.
Maloney: But how does that translate onto the court?
Falk: If you have a good relationship with someone off-the-court it’s going to be easier to talk to them on-the-court. If you have good relationships you know how each person deals with things, so you know how you can talk to one person as opposed to another.
Aiello: Some teams are okay with not being friends at all; they can walk on the court and there’s no problem. We’re not that kind of team.
Falk: That’s not how our team is built.
Aiello: So we have to maintain these relationships to play well with each other. This year we’re hitting our peak at the right time–we’re peaking at the end when we should be.
Falk: I think we learned some important lessons at the beginning of the season that have stayed with us.
Maloney: What were those lessons?
Falk: Not going into a game thinking you’re going to beat someone. Not underestimating opponents.
Aiello: But we get underestimated a lot, too. Teams look at us and we’re short, but we’re very strategic about the things we do. We do well with what we’ve been given.
Maloney: Did we underestimate Geneseo last year in the playoffs?
Falk: I don’t think we underestimated them. I think we just fell apart.
Aiello: We just didn’t show up.
Falk: There was a lot of yelling.
Aiello: And that’s what makes us fall apart. That’s when you lose games–when you get too angry about what’s going on. Now we turn that into a positive; we start hitting the ball more aggressively and channel that energy towards the game.
Maloney: That’s what Coach (Braun) has been telling me this year: if we play poorly in the first set. . .
Falk. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean that much.
Aiello: We’re very calm about what’s going on. We realize we’re not just going to walk in and sweep teams. We understand that we have to work for it. In the first few weeks we always dropped the first set, then we’d play to four and win.
Maloney: As individuals, can you talk about what’s played a role in your own improvement?
Aiello: It’s hard coming to a new team as a freshman; I wasn’t comfortable. It’s weird playing with new people because you don’t know how they play. That was hard.
Falk: We came in at a time (2015) when everything on the team was established. If Paulina (Rein) hadn’t gotten hurt I probably wouldn’t have seen much court time.
Aiello: There was a very established line-up–those girls were older, they had more experience, they knew what they were doing, and we walked into it. As time went on I felt more comfortable and I started playing the way I know how to play.
Falk: I think it’s easier to play up once you’ve been playing in games because you have to figure out how to make things work. In practice it’s not a big deal if I hit into a block, but in a game I have to figure out how to get around it.
Maloney: There’s pressure now.
Aiello: Yes. We’ve become mentally stronger. The game moves a lot faster in college. Once you get used to that you learn more control and you learn about what you can and can’t do. I’ve learned more about myself as a player in college than I ever did in high school. Now I go against these six-foot girls, but I’m only five-foot-seven so I have to be more strategic about what I do.
Falk: A huge benefit for me was having Tyler in the gym last spring (Tyler North, former Fredonia assistant coach and current head women’s volleyball coach at Thiel College)–just having a new perspective in the gym. We’re still running the offense we worked on this spring.
Aiello: He was a turning point for us. If he wasn’t there during spring season I don’t know where we’d be right now. He changed our offense.
Falk: Because we’re short, having a fast offense means that we can beat the block. We have to have that in order to be successful.
Aiello: The offense just works for us.
Falk: Even having Liv here (Olivia Zureck, current assistant coach)–it’s just having another perspective in the gym that helps so much. Coach (Braun) can’t see what’s happening with the entire team at one time. Having another set of eyes helps a ton.
Maloney: So what are you thinking about going into this weekend?
Aiello: Last time we played Geneseo they didn’t play great and we swept them. We’re not going to walk in and sweep them this time. I’m already expecting a battle. I know they’re not going to give it to us. We just have to work hard.
Falk: We just have to play Fredonia volleyball. We can’t move away from what we know.
Maloney: And that’s having a fast offense, . . .
Falk: Defense and serving.
Aiello: Our serving is our main identity. Teams can’t serve-receive against us, and the more we have Geneseo out-of-system the less we’ll have massive hitters on us.
Falk: I think teams underestimate us.
Aiello: And maybe that’s from the past, too–we’ve been good but then we fall short. I think it’s led us to have that reputation right now.
Falk: This year it’s real that we can do this. It’s not like, “Eh, maybe we’ll beat them.” This year it’s like, “We’re doing it.”
Aiello: You just know when you have that team that’s going to do it. I feel like we have the team to do it.
Maloney: And it wasn’t that team six months ago.
Falk: No. Everything has just progressed in the right direction.
Maloney: I’m blown away by it.
Falk: We just don’t give up. When we’re playing against other good teams we push back. Each SUNYAC weekend we’ve gotten better.
Maloney: And it all comes back to the relationships?