Adversity doesn't break Tulane
Women's volleyball program perseveres despite several challenges
Since the beginning of the 2005 season, the Tulane volleyball program has seen enough adversity to last a lifetime. It started when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana four years ago. With New Orleans severely damaged and no hope of playing on campus, the Green Wave regrouped at Texas A&M University to continue their education and complete the 2005 season.
Last season, it almost happened again. Tulane was forced to stay on the road during its preconference schedule when Hurricane Ike threatened the Gulf Coast. Instead of returning to New Orleans after a tournament at BYU, the Green Wave spent a week practicing and playing at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Then, less than three months after winning the school's first conference title in volleyball, coach Liz Kritza left Tulane to take the head-coaching position at the University of Colorado.
The adversity was literally coming in waves.
The program gained a sense of stability when assistant coach Sinisa Momic, who had been at Tulane since 2002, took control of the program on March 23. But just as the 2009 season was about to begin, the Green Wave experienced a serious case of deja vu.
The latest twist of nature came in the form of the flu, which forced the team to remain in a self-imposed quarantine in New Orleans instead of traveling to Omaha, Neb., to open the season against No. 11 Illinois, Texas Tech and host Creighton.
Nearly half the team has been too sick to practice at one time or another, and with the country on edge about the possibility of a flu pandemic, the Tulane administration took proactive steps to prevent the spread of the disease among its athletes, students and the general public.
"Yeah, it's H1N1," Momic confirmed. "The only good thing is the symptoms have not been that severe and the players have gotten over it in two or three days."
Fortunately, the ability to overcome adversity has become even more contagious at Tulane.
The two most publicized events -- Hurricane Katrina and the swine flu pandemic -- occurred during the first season for each of its most recent head coaches. But the similarities don't end there.
In each of those seasons, the team's roster was made up predominantly of first-year players after having a large senior class graduate the year before. Momic is hoping this year's freshman class can duplicate -- or exceed -- the accomplishments of last year's graduating class.
In 2005, despite not playing a home match, the Green Wave advanced to the semifinal match of the Conference USA tournament as the 11-seed. The following season, Tulane finished in a tie for third place and finished the season with a 15-11 overall record. In 2007, it was conference runner-up and completed the season with a 28-6 mark.
The adversity was literally coming in waves. Fortunately, the ability to overcome adversity has become even more contagious at Tulane.
"It was that first year that gave the program its character," Momic said. "All that adversity happened, but if you keep the right frame of mind, you can use it to make you better. It definitely was a character-builder."
Last season, with an experienced team led by seven seniors, the Green Wave won the regular-season and tournament titles, and defeated Tennessee Tech in the program's first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
"I knew we could get to the point we did last year," said current senior libero Jenn Miller, the program's career leader in digs. "Our freshman year was just getting used to each other and finding a system that worked. The next year, everyone was hitting harder and smarter. Finally, everything came together last year."
Despite losing five of the nine players who made up last season's 6-2 formation, the players believed the 2009 team would be capable of defending its titles. But early in the spring, the team was shocked when Kritza announced she was leaving. Even though the team had been tipped off, Miller said the Kritza news was hard to take.
"We kind of knew it was coming, but still hearing her say she was taking a job in Colorado and that she was leaving was a complete shock because she had been such a backbone for this team," Miller said.
"She was just really close with all of us, closer than any head coach I've ever had. Not just as a coach, but as a friend, a mentor, a teacher, as anything you needed."
Adding insult to injury, the Green Wave also lost assistant coach Meg Henican (who followed Kritza to Colorado) as well as their trainer and strength coach. When it finally was announced that Momic would be the new head coach, the players were relieved that there would be some consistency with the program.
Despite all the players have endured, they don't dwell on what unexpected act of nature will turn into their next challenge. But they certainly have learned to take precautions when they leave New Orleans.
"We really try not to worry about stuff like that too much, especially when we're on volleyball trips," Miller said. "Before we leave, we have to make sure everything is OK around the house. You always take precautions, but you're not going to be able to do anything about it."
Instead, Miller and her teammates are concentrating on winning matches. That's why the extra week of practice may help the team improve on-court communication and provide time to regain strength, which may pay off at the end of the season.
"There was a transition period, but our newcomers have had a lot of experience," Miller said. "They already have higher expectations than what it was like my freshman year. They're willing to work and the communication is getting better."
The Green Wave are hoping to play their first three matches of the season this weekend during a two-day tournament at LSU, where they will also face Louisiana-Lafayette and No. 6 Nebraska.
Tulane then will face crosstown rival New Orleans before playing host to LSU and Long Beach State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl Classic. While the team may not be at full strength, playing highly regarded opponents will prepare the Green Wave for their conference matches later in the season.
"By the end of the season, it's not as much about technique as it is playing with heart," Miller said. "I think as long as the newcomers realize that, we can do it again. Things like this, if you don't let them get to you, they really do make you stronger."
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.