Junior GU volleyball outside hitter Kennedy Croft blocks a kill in a match against LMU last season.

Despite an unusually long absence from competition prior to a late spring season, the Gonzaga volleyball team has plenty to show for a season largely defined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Zags finished the spring 2021 campaign with a 7-11 record playing matches exclusively within the West Coast Conference (WCC). GU finished in the middle of the conference standings among national powerhouses like No. 14 Brigham Young University (BYU), No. 20 Pepperdine and No. 21 San Diego, who all earned bids in this year’s NCAA tournament.

“We competed hard and I think we established some really important things in our program that we can build on for sure,” said GU Head Coach Diane Nelson.

The Zags were the first WCC team to force San Diego into a tiebreaker fifth set this season. In one of the most exciting games for the Zags, they fell just short in the final set. 

Aside from the top-25 conference teams, GU earned wins against all other WCC opponents, with emphatic back-to-back wins at the University of Portland to close out the season on a high. 

“That’s a great way to end your season for sure,” Nelson said.

The Zags recently racked up five all-WCC honors. Senior outside hitter Sarah Penner and sophomore middle hitter Alyssa Hughes earned second-team honors while sophomore setter Tia Andaya, senior outside hitter Chapin Gray and junior outside hitter Kennedy Croft made the honorable mention list.

A large part of the team’s success this season can be attributed to the long hiatus from competitive play, which reinvigorated their passion for the game and for playing as a unit.

“We took playing for granted, and once we were able to have a season I think nobody took that for granted anymore. We were all just really excited to play the game that we’ve loved for so long,” Croft said.

Not only did the pandemic cause a lengthy stoppage of competitive play that affected the Zags, it had lasting effects throughout the spring 2021 season.

The Zags usually have breaks between games to recover and practice, but because of so many COVID-19 related delays and postponements the squad often had long stretches of games without those key off-days.

“Our schedule at one point was 10 matches in 15 days so you couldn’t do a lot between matches, you just kinda had to go with what you’d established in January,” Nelson said. “And that’s hard, it was hard for kids to get better in practice or break things down or quite honestly even recover.” 

Although the scheduling this year left little room for fine-tuning and short-term adjustments, there was a bright side to the quick turnaround between matches.

“The other side of the equation is kids love to compete,” Nelson said. “They like that they got more matches rather than practice, so it was good on both sides, but challenging in the sense that we couldn’t control what other programs were going through.”

In addition to a jam-packed schedule, there were other unique challenges to this season that made the Zags’ success all the more impressive including frequent COVID-19 testing requirements.

“We had to get tested three times a week. It was always a little bit of anxiety hoping that we were all going to be negative,” Croft said.

The team also had to refrain from spending extra time together in the locker room and outside of the Martin Centre to avoid any potential COVID-19 exposures that would impact their ability to play.

“That was just hard, not being together all the time, limited time in the locker room, just some things weren’t the same that usually brings the team together,” Croft said.

While COVID-19 caused many setbacks for GU this season, it also enhanced some aspects of the team’s performance. Even though it seems counterintuitive, the pandemic brought the team together in new ways.

“I think we were more connected than ever,” Croft said.

At the core of the team were six seniors who were massive contributors seeing lots of court time. Despite their senior campaign not counting as a true season, the group was still entirely invested in the team’s success.

“They’re such a big class and they all have a good presence on the court,” Croft said. “I think they really stepped up as seniors this year, they were totally invested in the season and they just brought the team together.”

While the Zags are taking time to be proud of their spring season, they have a quick turnaround before the fall 2021 schedule starts up. GU is looking to stay focused during the summer and come back strong.

“We’re working on drills to set them up for the summer,” Nelson said. “And quite honestly they’re really hungry. I think they see the potential for our season to be as normal as it can be come fall.”

Nelson believes that a shorter break before their next competition and the addition of at least six new players to the fall 2021 roster will set GU up for success.

“They bring so much enthusiasm and energy,” Nelson said. “Honestly, the sky’s the limit.”

Dagny Albano is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @dagny_albano.

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