On a warm May morning, with the streets of Berkeley lying nearly empty as students scurry home for summer, Christina Higgins is hard at work in Haas Pavilion swinging at volleyballs. These balls fly a little straighter — a little truer — than she is used to.
“We’ve been practicing with the European balls,” Higgins said. “They’re a lot more dense and are just different.”
The Cal volleyball team is taking a trip to Europe beginning on Saturday to compete against club teams overseas. Per NCAA rules, the Bears are allowed to take an international trip once every four years, but this is the first time that Cal has elected to do so in coach Rich Feller’s 15 years with the program.
“It’s about time,” Feller said.
Among the many adjustments the Bears need to make is getting accustomed to the stiffer, heavier European balls, but there are other rule changes too. Some are subtle, like the reduced warm up time before matches. But other rules have a significant impact on the game, such as the reduced number of subs allowed from 15 in the American game to 6 across the pond. That reduction will force the Bears to rely on more well-rounded players in Europe as they will not always be able to get their more specialized athletes out of the game.
But the most important adjustments that Cal will need to make are off the court. The Bears’ two week trip will cover four countries: Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia.
“We’re going to be out in the countryside (in Switzerland),” Higgins said. “I heard it’s really beautiful.”
The players broke into groups this week to research each of their destinations before reporting back to the entire team. Cultural education and team bonding are the main reasons Feller chose to take the trip. Too many schools use international trips as excuses to go out and recruit players, Feller says. For Cal to make the jump overseas, he wanted it to be for the right reasons.
“(I saw) some things that our team could really use — a little extra practice, a little extra competition, the team bonding aspect that comes with a two week road trip and then the cultural aspect,” Feller said.
Student athletes rarely have a chance to study abroad due to demanding practice schedules that can stretch year-round. For Feller, the international trip gives his players a chance to experience some of what a student studying abroad would while maintaining play at a Division I level.
The trip was paid for entirely by private donations. The team dipped into its fundraising efforts to raise the money for the trip, combining its Bear Backers networks with its players to build up the private donations necessary. The fundraising took nine months to complete.
“We’re used to travelling to Pullman, Washington, that’s about as different a culture as we get in our travels,” Feller said. “To be able to go to foreign countries and have them get an appreciation for the rest of the world, I think that’s going to carry over into their humanity when they come back home and how they are as people.”