Her second trip back to James Madison University in 12 years reminded head volleyball coach Mary Tendler what Elon University’s venture into the Colonial Athletic Association means to her.
“It felt like I was going back where I came from,” Tendler said of Elon’s move to the CAA.
After three years at James Madison as an assistant, Tendler took the Elon job in 2003. She had only been back once — to work a summer camp in 2004 — before last Thursday’s visit to James Madison, where Elon lost 3-1 (23-25, 25-20, 25-14, 25-16).
Tendler’s story is one of many on an Elon team that doesn’t have extremely strong roots to the CAA footprint, located up through the Mid-Atlantic. The Phoenix has a lot of adjustments to make, including travel and scouting.
“There’s a lot of learning,” said junior middle blocker Catherine Head, who hails from Kernersville. “Every step is something new.”
Parallels to the past
Tendler was coaching under her husband, Blaine Tendler, at Drake University when college teammate Disa Garner offered her an assistant coaching job at James Madison. Tendler accepted, moving from the Midwest to the East for the first time in her life.
Under Garner, Tendler worked with the middle blockers, the position she used to play, and helped lead the Dukes to the 2000 CAA title.
“We got a lot of the volleyball community really enthused about volleyball at JMU,” Tendler said. “The crowds were great. A lot of students came. The gym there is small, and the fans were really, really loud. It’s just an exciting place to play.”
Garner isn’t at James Madison anymore, and Tendler doesn’t keep in touch with anyone there. But, she said she would pop in some offices to say hello to some people she knew when working there.
When Tendler took the Elon job, the Phoenix was moving to the Southern Conference after four seasons in the Big South Conference. She sees parallels between that situation and the current one with Elon moving into the CAA.
“There’s just an excitement,” she said. “Even this past weekend, it was so exciting to play Hofstra [University] in our first CAA match. We’re making history here. That doesn’t happen very often.”
The trips to James Madison and the College of William & Mary this past weekend served as mini-homecomings for Elon freshman outside hitter Sydney Busa, from Leesburg, Virginia, 41 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.
She knows a handful of players from each team from playing club volleyball for Virginia Elite, including William & Mary middle blocker Paige Humphrey.
Busa expected her parents and family in the crowd when Elon played at James Madison and William & Mary, along with friends from both schools.
Elon was still in the SoCon when Busa committed, and she had no idea of the plans to move to the CAA. When the announcement was made, it added a new meaning to her future at Elon.
“You know people on the other side of the net. You know people who will be at your matches,” Busa said. “I’m excited because it means more traveling up north where my family is. It’s just being in a known environment.”
Busa performed well in both games, tallying a combined 26 kills that led to CAA Rookie of the Week honors.
Junior middle blocker Catherine Head’s family refers to her father as “The Travel Agent” because of his obsession with trekking to all of Elon’s games. She said he’s got flights and trains booked already for some of Elon’s longer road trips this year to New York (Hofstra) and Boston (Northeastern University).
There’s a slew of positives and negatives for Head and her family when it comes to competition and travel in the CAA.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Head said. “I have family that lives over [near former SoCon foes Western Carolina University and Appalachian State University], so they’d be there. I have other family members who are super excited to travel and see Boston or New York. They’ll be traveling for different reasons this year, instead of just to see me.”
Five of Elon’s players are from North Carolina, but none hail from the Wilmington area where Elon will head to face the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Sophomore Ally Karle’s hometown of Flanders, New Jersey is 75 miles from Hofstra, and junior setter Chelsea Rafetto’s native Unionville, Pennsylvania, is 73 miles from Towson University.
While the CAA move brings back some old memories at times, it’s still going to be an adjustment for Elon in terms of facing new opponents and traveling to new places. But, it’s one the Phoenix is looking forward to.
“It’s just a learning experience throughout,” Head said. “Learning the players, learning the schools themselves. We’re all super excited to create those new rivals within the conference.”