Volleyball coach Bob Bertucci is a teacher on the court. He knows the ins and outs of the game just like any other coach at the NCAA level.
Something Bertucci can’t teach, however, is experience. Nor can he teach breaking the language barrier, with a bevy of newcomers that includes three from China.
Bertucci’s team is struggling to adjust. The Owls (2-8) are currently riding a four-game losing skid. In those four losses, all of which were played on the road, the team won just one set.
“Our slow starts are nothing unusual,” Bertucci said. “It makes me feel a whole lot better that we’ve lost in the past and have rebounded. Starting 2-8 though, with the team that we have this year isn’t so unusual at all.”
With just one returning starter, Bertucci is worried that early-season woes could hurt his team’s confidence. Another problem is that the team’s learning process, which non-conference play is for, could run into the start of Atlantic Ten play.
In terms of non-conference losses, this year’s squad is not that different from its 2003 counterparts. Last season’s squad was “a team that didn’t properly prepare itself in the off-season,” Bertucci said.
Dragging after the first few games, the Owls tore through conference competition. The Owls posted a 13-1 record in conference play, only to fall to Dayton in the A-10 championship. It was only the second instance in A-10 history in which a team won the regular season title, but failed to win the conference championship.
“We were the best team last year,” Bertucci said. “We just didn’t want it as bad as Dayton did. They worked very hard as the underdog coming into the tournament. We need to do that to get to that point and I think we will.”
Dropping such an important game is a learning experience, especially for a team that has played so little together. Bertucci’s team has a unique makeup. Five starters have graduated, five newcomers made the final cuts and four players are relatively new to the country.
Freshmen outside hitter Yue Lui and setter Ying Sun Ling and sophomore outside hitter Yan Liu are recruits from China. Senior middle blocker Zhen Jia Liu, among the team leaders in kills and digs last season, is also from China. Just how did Bertucci find these talented international players?
Bertucci’s assistant coach Liu Bai Qing had a major hand in the recruiting process. Qing attended Shanghai Sports College, the same highly-touted institution that three of the four Chinese players on Bertucci’s roster had attended prior to coming here.
“The fact that we have an assistant coach who was arguably the best middle blocker in the world when he played doesn’t hurt,” Bertucci said of Qing. “When these girls were little kids, he was like the Michael Jordan [of volleyball]. When he makes a phone call [to Shanghai Sports College], it makes a big difference for us and our recruiting.”
With so many international players, the language barrier might be an overlooked point. It was, until Bertucci addressed the problem by holding several team meetings. Now, some of the players are employing hand signals to better communicate with their teammates.
“After the meetings, communication got a lot better,” said senior Alison Runk, the two-time A-10 Setter of the Year. “Their English is improving. They’re getting better.”
The Chinese style of play is much faster than what she is used to, Runk said. She commends her newest teammates for inspiring the other players to make adjustments for the better.
“As far as the team’s effort and game-play is concerned, it’s helped us,” she said. “It helps the American players to step up and play harder and faster.”
Although communication is an issue, it doesn’t top Bertucci’s priority list of figuring out who plays what position. With the influx of recruits and true freshmen alike, Bertucci has had to shuffle his starting rotation in order to find a lineup that works well together. It hasn’t been an easy task.
“Of course we’ve been practicing and playing games, but some of these girls I’ve only seen once or twice before in recruiting,” he said.
“It’s going to take a while to figure that out,” he added, “but that’s not a fault to the players. That’s in my coaching.
“I often ask myself, ‘Who do you put in what position?’ or ‘What players do you put out there?’ My main focus is to make sure we are organized on offense.”
In addition, Bertucci has had to deal with an injury to his top middle blocker, Zhen Jia Liu. Midway through the team’s first game against American on Saturday, Liu was kneed in the side. She was sidelined for the remainder of the game and looks to contribute in this weekend’s Fairfield Classic, a tournament in which the Owls will play three games in two days.
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com.