July 5, 2013
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A couple of weeks after returning to the United States, Lobo volleyball members Jeff Nelson, Skye Gullatt and Lexi Ross reflected on the nearly two weeks they spent in China with Bring it Promotions/U.S.A Development Team program (Director of Operations, Jordie Hadfield also made the trip). The general consensus among the trio was it was an experience that helped them grow on the volleyball court and otherwise.
The trip began in Los Angeles when the group of Lobos met up with the rest of their team -- 10 other collegiate/former collegiate players in addition to Gullatt and Ross -- and two assistant coaches, Shawn Garus (head coach at Boise State) and Debbie Hendricks (head coach at Metro State) at Loyola Marymount on June 14 and had two practices before departing for China on June 15. A team of Pac-12 summer all-stars traveled with the BIP/USA team the Lobos were part of, making the travel group a total of 37 people.
The large group arrived in Shanghai and then drove to Huai'an for their first tournament which was held June 19-21. From there, the tour continued on to Beijing with a tournament held June 23-25. A full day of sight seeing capped the trip before the group departed for the U.S. on June 27.
"We played in a nice venue, a huge arena for the first tournament," Nelson said. "The second place we played in in Beijing was the site for taekwondo and table tennis for the Beijing Olympics.
"All of our matches on the trip were televised and we were treated very well by our hosts -- at both tournaments," Nelson, who served as the BIP/USA Development team head coach said. "The fans loved the girls and would keep them for an hour after the matches for pictures. They cheered for good points. They never cheered against us and were never rude. They appreciated a long rally -- it didn't matter who won it, they were cheering."
Over the two tournaments, the group played against four of the top six professional Chinese teams and against the Chinese Army Team (part of the 81st division), giving the U.S. players an exposure to highly technical and extremely fast volleyball.
"They were strong in ball handling, they had great arm swings, they were fast and had incredibly tough serving and were super disciplined. They ran the same plays over and over again, but they just ran them very well," Nelson said.
The group faced nine Chinese Olympians in total -- one of the teams that BIP/USA played twice boasted a roster that included four Olympians.
"One of the teams we played, the setter had started at the last two Olympics for China and she ran a couple of fakes and things, and of course, we don't see that in our college game so our blockers were scrambling," Nelson recounted. "It's different there. Volleyball is what their teams do 24/7. They live together, they train all day long, every day. They don't really do anything else. It's a different dynamic."
The BIP/USA team was unable to take a set in either tournament, but did keep sets competitive, scoring around 20 points before simply running out of steam against the technically-sound opposition.
Even if the matches didn't go the way they'd hoped, the U.S. players were still treated like celebrities --revered for their height and athletic builds -- and Gullatt and Ross say they gained valuable experience on the court.
"I think I'll be prepared for anything as far as blocking goes," Gullatt said. "Everything happened so quickly [in our matches] that you didn't have time to think and I tend to overthink a lot, so going against that type of play helped me learn to just go with it."
Nelson says Gullatt's personal assessment was spot on.
"I don't think we'll ever see that type of net play again and Skye led our team in blocking in terms of blocks per games played," Nelson said.
Ross feels her court vision and decision making improved over the six matches.
"They didn't have very many holes on their side of the court that they couldn't cover so you really had to be diligent and mix up your own game to not be predictable," Ross said.
Off the court, the Lobos tried new foods and visited new sites.
Duck brains, scorpions, eel, tripe (cow stomach), boiled chicken heads and a jello mold of fish were among some of the more exotic menu items travelers encountered. Rice, potstickers and the occasional "American" meal (pizza, spaghetti, fast food) were available, too, but the Lobos made an effort to branch out and try different types of grub.
Gullatt's food method was simple and worked.
"You just find something you like, you stick with it and then you try some other things. If you don't like it, you move on. They gave us plenty of options," Gullatt said. "I tried a lot of things, but the weirdest thing I had was eel and it was delicious. It was the looking at it that was hard."
The large group visited the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Silk Market and Tiananmen Square.
The Great Wall was a highlight for Nelson.
"It was amazing," he said. "It's 1,000 steps up which is like climbing a 100-story building, but once you're up there you can see the world.
"The toboggan run -- like a luge -- on the way down was pretty awesome, too."
Bartering was what Ross and Gullatt enjoyed most. A shopping style so very different than what one gets at a mall in the U.S.
"The Silk Market was definitely the place everybody loved," Ross said. "It's seven floors of anything you can imagine."
"Everything looks the same," Gullatt added. "The stores are little glass sections and if you can't find something at one story, you'll definitely find it at the next one or the next one."
The whole group got a kick out of the antics and tactics of the shopkeepers making claims like, "You're my first customer..." or, "Oh, I remember you from yesterday," in attempt to draw in shoppers and strike a deal.
Overall, the excursion was one that resonated with the Lobos -- from the type of volleyball to the cultural experiences.