It’s been a few days since the Louisville volleyball team lost their first and last match of the season. So many emotions have run through me since 7:00 on Saturday night and I’ve needed a few days to collect my thoughts before I started putting words on the screen.
I’m sure you all read Dalton’s Open Letter To Louisville Volleyball.
Dalton has covered the team for you and brought you several interviews with players. However, I followed this team all the way through the Elite Eight from a different vantage point. My vantage point was court-side and behind the lens. And from that vantage point, I want to share with you some of my observations, thoughts, and moments I captured.
Let me start by saying volleyball runs deep in my family. I have cousins who coach both here in Louisville and in Florida. I had a couple fraternity brothers who played with the Louisville club team back in my college days and I got to practice with them a few times. Somewhere tucked away in the student activities center, there are photos of me and my crew as intramural volleyball champs. That’s right, I said intramural. I was way too short to play college volleyball. However, that never stopped or slowed my love and respect for the game of volleyball.
Enough about my glory days, let’s talk about something so much greater. Let’s talk about the story these 19 ladies get to tell their kids.
For me, I knew this year had the potential to be a very special one all the way back in October of 2020. You remember the Covid split 2020 season right? The ladies played the first part of the season mainly in October and then resumed the second part of the season in February. The Cards went 14-2 after having 5 matches canceled or postponed. In a shortened NCAA field, the Cards advanced to the regional semifinal where they lost to Washington.
During that season, despite Covid restrictions, I was lucky enough to be able to photograph several of those matches and I quickly saw the bond theses ladies had built. It seemed the challenges of being a student athlete during a pandemic only strengthened that bond. Couple that bond with the immense talent and athleticism and you have something special.
But that season ended and several pieces of the team would be graduating and moving on.
Then the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility and some key pieces to this squad decided to take advantage of the rule and give it one more run. Enter the 2021 season. The Cards earned a ranking of 13th in the preseason poll.
As I moved around L&N Arena to photograph many of the home matches during the 2021 season, I quickly gained a bond with a team who never even knew my name. I also witnessed fans who came to every single match to root for this team. I saw young girls in their KIVA gear watching their idols in hopes of someday being able to play on the same court.
I saw a team unite a fan base that was slowly becoming divided over the woes of a football team, the uncertainty of the school’s leadership, the lowered expectations of a storied basketball program, and fears of pending NCAA violations. For a few short weekends, this team was the focus and none of that other stuff mattered (at least to me).For that, I thank you.
While as a fan I needed this as much as everyone else, I felt a little closer to this team than the casual fan. I picked up on things I saw that had me believing in this team with all my heart. I saw this team’s ability to gather themselves and overcome obstacles when things were not going their way. They simply called time out, had a little pep talk and came out and conquered. This team had no fear and no moment was ever too big for them.
The confidence this team had in themselves was derived from the trust they had in their teammates. That trust was evident even if you watched just 1 set of one match. As was the talent.
However, what you might not have seen or picked up on was the little individual things that endeared me to them even more.
Almost every time Aiko Jones served I heard her thank the ball boy/girl for throwing her a ball. That speaks volumes of her character.
Wisconsin native Claire Chaussee broke out the discount double check celebration a few times that really brought smiles to her teammates. It was just simply another example of how much fun this team was having together.
Nothing was more genuine and pure than a Tori Dilfer double-fisted celebration.
I really don’t think the casual fan understands just how hard these ladies hit the ball. One game Anna DeBeer hit a ball so hard that it hit the floor and came towards my camera on one bounce. I put my hand up to block the ball from striking my camera and the ball stung my hand and left it red. I was in awe of how hard and fast the ball came towards me.
I could go on and on about each one of these special ladies, but I’ve rambled on about all of this to just say Thank You and I appreciate all of you. You are all very special to me and your fans.
Thank you for loving the game. Thank you for being you. Thank you for being there for us. Thank you for brining us on an unforgettable historic journey. Thank you for representing the university with class. Thank you for being great role models. Thank you for being the brightest light in the darkest of times. Thank you for your hard work on the court and in the class room. Thank you for your appreciation of the fans. Thank you for listening to, respecting, appreciating, and caring for your coaches and staff.
And if you haven’t already seen this, you should take a minute to watch it. This is exactly the type of athlete Louisville needs more of. Thank you for this…
"Looking back on our journey together, I see such a clear pattern of how God has used this game for so much more than I could've ever thought."@toridilfer thanks volleyball for the life lessons that she has learned from the sport.#NCAAVB x @UofLVolleyball pic.twitter.com/IvtkRsSn6S
— NCAA Women's Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) December 17, 2021
If you haven’t seen them already, here are a few of my favorite photos followed by our photo galleries from the NCAA tourney. I followed the team all the way through the Elite Eight. Unfortunately my youngest son had to have surgery so I couldn’t make the trip to Columbus.
As Always, GO CARDS