Of all the ways in which the Elon University volleyball team stood out this summer, their height difference was easily the most noticeable.
The “walking red giants,” as members of the team called themselves, spent a week in Italy and Switzerland this summer and gained valuable experience from their four matches against regional club teams. Despite losing each match, the Phoenix played several close sets while adjusting to a new time zone and rubberized balls different than those used in America.
“The games definitely helped the team grow,” said Ana Nicksic, sophomore setter. “Any sorts of reps help us all get better. By throwing in some variables such as waking up early, walking around in the hot sun, riding a bus and then finally playing allowed us to rally as a team to try and get the job done.”
The team arrived May 26 in Milan, then took a cable car ride over Lake Como to Brunate, a popular tourist destination during the summer. Assistant coach Tina Readling had one word to describe her initial reactions in a new country.
“Spoiled,” she said. “That’s how it feels to leave the familiarity of America and to land in Milan, Italy, where the airport signs have messages in Italian and underneath that foreign language, a message in English.”
The next day, the team played its first match in Lugano, a city in Switzerland bordering Italy. During their stay, they visited Alprose Chocolat, a famous chocolate factory in Caslano-Lugano.
“You would have thought it was brain surgery for me,” said Catherine Head, sophomore middle blocker. “There were so many different types of chocolate that it was hard to pick just one.”
In their first game, Elon went up against Meda’s club team. Meda plays in the B-1 division in Italy, which is the top level for non-professional players.
Along with most other nations, Italy doesn’t gain professional players through collegiate athletics. Instead, they have club teams for each age group. Sports are often a profession for a player as soon as they become a teenager.
The team had minimal time to prepare for its first match but still played with good effort, according to head coach Mary Tendler.
After Lugano, the team visited San Marino for two days to play its second match of the trip and continue their new dining experience.
“I probably spent 90 percent of my time in Italy sipping on cappuccinos and munching on pasta, pizza and prosciutto,” said Maggie Reichard, senior defensive specialist. “After eating in dining halls for the past four years, every bite of food I took tasted like glory. The food is light, fresh and simply delicious.”
During their visit to San Marino, the Phoenix played Ozzano’s club team. Ozzano has beaten every U.S. college team that has played them in the last three years. Giulia Grasso, Ozzano’s middle blocker, said Elon was the best team she faced out of all of them.
“The Phoenix players were not happy about the way they played, but they’re learning and adjusting,” said Glenn Scott, Elon associate professor of communications, who traveled with the team throughout Italy. “This is way outside their routine — just as it should be on a journey like this.”
On May 30, the Phoenix stopped in Bologna, then made their way to the Tuscany region of Italy. After their third match of the trip against Montesport’s club team, the team visited Cinque Terre and Porto Venere.
“Porto Venere was the perfect place to visit after walking around Florence for an entire day,” Head said. “While in Florence, I was surrounded by churches, statues, restaurants, stores and lots of people. In Porto Venere, I was surrounded by salt water, a sea breeze and spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea. Visiting there was like taking a breath of fresh air.”
Against Montesport, the Phoenix fell 3-1 after struggling with ball control in the first set. They found a better tempo in the third set and tested Montesport in the club’s first official match.
The team returned to Milan to play its fourth and final match after a few days in Cinque Terre. The matchup came against Regalati di Sorriso, a club team at the level just below the professional ranks in Milan.
On the final day of the trip, the Phoenix visited the ever-popular Leaning Tower of Pisa.
“I think Pisa was probably my favorite day,” Head said. “I never knew exactly what the Leaning Tower looked like because I had only seen it in pictures. To me, it seemed smaller than I expected, but considering what the tower has been through, and it is still standing, that is awesome in itself.”
The women’s volleyball team toured eight cities in 10 days during their trip and completed their experiential learning requirement with the course Travel Writing in Italy. Scott led the class, which provided academic instruction and activity during their exploration of the country.
“Travel Writing in Italy taught us how to publicize our feelings about the trip,” said Megan Gravley, sophomore outside hitter. “It’s kind of cool to be able to look back at our blog and reminisce.”