In its season opener against Akron on Friday, Cal State Fullerton volleyball came up short in the fifth set 15-13. The experience is not new. Since head coach Ashley Preston took the helm of the program in 2015, the Titans have secured one five-set victory in thirteen attempts.
The ghosts of the past did not haunt the team postgame. Instead, the Titans exited the locker room confident, a confidence foreign to a program that has lost nearly seven times the amount of games that it has won over the last three seasons.
“I feel good about my team. As far as losses go, it was good to have that first loss be a 13-15 fifth set,” said sophomore right side Tyler Fezzey.
Why would a team that struggled with five-set matches be thankful for that opportunity in the first game of the season? Freshman defensive specialist Neena Dimas said the program has begun to value the importance of the journey more than the destination.
“You don’t really need to worry about the score if you’re focused on making sure you’re doing well. If you’re playing well, it doesn’t matter what the score is, you’re getting better,” Dimas said.
The Titans believed they played well against the Zips. After dropping the first two sets by a combined 18 points, they won the next two by a combined 17. Although the outcome was not favorable, every player was convinced they improved.
That conviction held true over the next two matches. Fullerton swept University of Massachusetts Lowell later that night and University of Montana the next day.
As junior transfer and starting outside Felicia Marshall began to explain her emotions after her first 10-kill outing as a Titan, senior outside Maddie Schneider interrupted Marshall to share her excitement.
“It feels fricken awesome. We have a winning record right now. It feels good, it’s a great start,” Schneider said.
Schneider has played for CSUF since her sophomore year. In her two prior seasons in orange and blue, the team started 2-1 as well.
Along with many outsiders, she believes there is something distinct about the way this team achieved that start.
“Everything is different. One of our administrators told Coach Preston about how our bench vibe is different. There are a lot more of us so there’s a lot more positivity,” Schneider said.
“A lot more” is an understatement. The Titans have 22 players on their roster, which is the largest team in program history. Of those 22, 12 of them are newcomers.
Constructing a successful team with nine freshman and three transfers is not an easy task, but Preston believes the team took a huge step forward thanks to changes in the coaching staffs recruiting ideology.
“As a staff, we picked apart the qualities we found in those kids (last year) and asked ‘How can we find those qualities again in 2018?’ We’re focusing more on the culture rather than just winning,” Preston said.
The change in culture has immediately shown results. Dimas said the most crucial information she’s learned since joining the team is the sacrifice required to be a good teammate.
“If not having me in is what’s best for the team, I just have to work harder in practice to better myself for the team. If someone is playing really well, we have to give them that opportunity to go in,” Dimas said.
Preston decided against playing senior setter Nastassja Bowman in the Akron game. Instead of turning sour, Bowman stood at the top of the bench, leading chants and encouraging the group she calls her family.
“We really make a point of doing that for each other and supporting each other in whatever we do. If we make mistakes, we build each other up again, we put things in the past for each other,” Bowman said. “It’s really important that we stay together and we build on each other because we’re the only ones that are going to make each other better.”
Marshall experienced a similar situation in the game against Montana. Midway through the first set, the outside errored on three attacks in a row. Preston quickly subbed her out for freshman Tatiana Toleafoa and had her talk to assistant coach Naseri Tumanuvao.
Marshall returned later in the set and finished the match with 10 more kills and only one more error. She gave credit to Preston and Toleafoa for her performance.
“Taking a second to regroup and let someone else help you out is honestly really helpful because it gives you a chance to take a breather and know what you have to do next. Plus, it gives another girl an opportunity to pick you back up,” Marshall said.
The Titans know that this hot start does not ensure that their play will continue for the rest of the season. However, they know what needs to be improved and are confident with the shape of the team heading forward.
“I don’t think our heads are too high. We still have these things we need to work on in the gym. We’re not perfect. There’re a lot of things we need to work on,” Schneider said.