How CCSU Volleyball Is Adapting To Quarantine

Ryan Jones, Managing Editor

The last day on campus for CCSU Volleyball Head Coach Linda Sagnelli was a strange one. As I interviewed her for a completely different story, we’d often have to take pauses so that she could focus on what is most important to her: her team. As news began to break about the campus getting shut down, Sagnelli made sure her players would be safe, wherever they’d be going.

For some, it was quarantined in their off-campus homes in New Britain, for others it was traveling back home across the country to stay with family. No matter the destination, Sagnelli made sure to cover every base. Now more than two months removed from that day, she and the rest of the team have adapted to this new normal that we all are in and are looking forward to a return to normalcy, a return to the court.

“Well, to start off, I’ll never take anything for granted again,” Sagnelli said.

Sagnelli, who has amassed a school-record 322 wins in her 20 seasons at the helm of CCSU volleyball, points to the things off the court as what she has been missing the most.

“The spring is one of the busiest times of years for us with our fundraising, clinics, practices and competitions,” Sagnelli said. “To have that so abruptly taken away is difficult. We all love the sport that we play, and yes you miss the sport tremendously, but I think you miss the people even more. Those relationships that you build over time are important to everybody.”

It’s not just the players and fellow coaches Sagnelli has missed in her time at home, rather the little interactions that make up the day.

“You realize how social we are and how we really rely on those relationships,” Sagnelli said. “The close ones, the relationships with acquaintances, the people we just happen to see every day and say hi to, are all really important.”

Senior Emma Henderson returned to her home with her family in Kansas City during the quarantine. Being more than 1,000 miles away from the rest of her teammates has been an adjustment so far, she said.

“It’s been weird not seeing everyone, especially because in the spring we spend so much time together, we’re together almost every day for a couple of hours,” Henderson said.

Hoping to keep everyone feeling connected, Sagnelli hosts WebEx meetings with the team, as well as one-on-one meetings with the players.

“I miss seeing them, I miss their teammates, I miss being around that team the whole time and the dynamics that that brings. I know they all miss that environment also and they miss that routine. The one thing that I think kind of ties everyone together is that we’re all in this together,” Sagnelli said. “In a smaller sense our WebEx meetings are just a way to stay in touch to make sure they’re doing okay: they’re feeling okay and academically they’re staying on top of things and most of all just to remind them that we’re here, we’re just a phone call away.”

Academics has always been a sharp focus for Sagnelli and athletes. Last season, the team was awarded the American Volleyball Coaches Association Team Academic Award for the 13th season in a row for their work in the classroom. Their collective GPA was the highest across all of CCSU’s athletic teams.

Despite the athletes not being in the classroom physically, Sagnelli has continued to make academics a focus on quarantine.

“In our individual meetings, the thing we opened up with is academics and just seeing what the transition has been like. Of course, they would rather be on campus and in a normal routine but just like everybody else, they were very quick to adapt to online learning,” Sagnelli said. “There are going to be a couple of hiccups along the way if somebody was caught at home and didn’t have books or somebody that needed a Chromebook because their laptop broke, but the professors have been outstanding and very understanding of how difficult it must be for students to make this transition.” 

From the student athlete’s perspective, Henderson said she has been able to stay on top of her school work but admits there are challenges with online learning.

 “I feel like it’s harder, for me going to class actually makes me do the work,” Henderson said. “When I’m at home it’s hard for me to open my computer and find the motivation to learn. It’s just kind of getting by, doing the assignments and not getting much out of them, so it’s definitely a learning curve.”

But along with missing out on traditional learning, the team is also losing practice time together, and with four seniors graduating and sophomore Natalie Novak becoming setter in the fall, Henderson admitted lost time can have effects moving forward.

There are going to be some learning curves and some mistakes, that will happen, but hopefully we will all get those smoothed out before we actually start playing — if we actually start playing. It’s a bummer, but every other team is in the same boat so it’ll be interesting to see how that goes over,” Henderson said.

While team practices have been canceled across the board, CCSU volleyball has still kept busy in quarantine with some non-mandated workouts from home. Sagnelli is not allowed to provide workouts per the NCAA’s rules. She says she does not even ask for updates on her players’ workouts because she trusts their dedication.

“I trust my team is going to be doing it because they themselves want to. When you think of it from the student-athlete perspective, they’re really missing being at practice and doing what we would all normally be doing, so they want to do as much as possible and I don’t think they’d need really any motivation except for their own,” Sagnelli said.

With this in mind, the team has been keeping things “normal”  by working out at home. While exercising and practicing is more voluntarily now, Sagnelli knows “that they’re all doing it. They’re passionate about their sport and many athletes don’t have to be told to stay in shape because they know that it benefits them so that they can compete at a high level.”

To attest to that dedication, Henderson said the first thing she did upon her return home was go out and buy a volleyball.

“I’ve been working on my ball control skills, passing and setting to myself,” Henderson said. “It’s hard, sometimes I’ll think, ‘Oh I’d be at practice right now’ or I’ll wake up at six in the morning and think, ‘I’d be waking up right now to do morning runs.’ It’s definitely different right now. I certainly don’t get up early to work out right now, I’m just going at my own pace and staying in shape.”

Like their players, Sagnelli and Assistant Coach Greg Shell have kept busy recruiting players from home. The spring is the busiest time of year for college volleyball recruiting and that has not changed. While the process typically involves watching players in person, videos have sufficed in getting a look at players.

“We have to do a lot of recruiting by video, so that’s really time-consuming to look at all this video that athletes across the country and the world are sending us. It’s difficult for them too because they need to go out and visit campuses and that’s not happening right now and they need that to happen in order to make decisions,” Sagnelli said.

Shell said he has had more conversations with possible recruits than he ever would in a typical year and credited the club directors and coaches for their willingness to help.

“The most interesting thing to come out of it, and a potentially good thing going forward, is that there’s a lot more in the way of relationship-building than we usually get with club coaches and club directors,” Shell said. “It’s actually been pretty easy to get a dialogue going with all of the players and coaches that we want to. It’s never super difficult but it’s been even easier now.”

With the thought of the Blue Devils of the future,  the real question remaining in the back of many sports fans, athletes and coaches minds is if and when will this all be over? In terms of CCSU volleyball, both Sagnelli and Shell agree that it is too early to speculate right now on that possibility.

“It’s like everybody’s trying to navigate without a map. We’re all going and we’re all getting work done every day, but there’s no defined endpoint to this pandemic,” Sagnelli said. “Hopefully the measures that have been put in place have a positive effect and that we don’t go through another wave of this. So I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and think optimistically right now, but as we get closer, I think we’ll be able to take a temperature a little bit better to see in which direction college athletic departments have to go,”

As for the players, Henderson said “it’s definitely in the back of my mind. We’re not having our spring season and that’s where we grow the most before the actual season, so that’s upsetting. Right now we’re doing business as usual until we’re told otherwise. We are focused on our return date in August and picking out gear for this season.”