‘Control the controllables’: The current freshman student-athlete experience

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Halfway across the Pacific Ocean from Berkeley, Tara DeSa spent her first semester as a Cal student-athlete in her hometown of Mililani, Hawaii. Without access to a gym, the 5’5” libero trained alone in her backyard.

“My dad set up a net across our yard, and my brother would just hit balls to me. Basically, that was all I could do,” DeSa said. “My position is a lot of diving and defense movements, and doing it on the grass in my muddy background was an adjustment.”

The COVID-19 pandemic may have been especially tough on college freshman students, who found themselves hovering in the gray area between high school and college for much longer than they had anticipated. Many freshman students spent much of 2020 outgrowing high school friends while being unable to make college friends.

Throughout the previous semester, freshman volleyball players logged onto Zoom calls twice a week and chatted with teammates they had never met in person. While the team made a concerted effort to form meaningful bonds over video chat and social media, this was easier said than done.

“You make connections when you’re physically with people and can have side conversations and secret jokes. That’s kind of hard to do on Zoom settings because everyone is muted and in different rooms. I feel like those little things are what makes a big difference when trying to form friendships, and because we couldn’t do that, it was a struggle,” DeSa said.

Some players were fortunate enough to have access to more traditional practice settings. For example, outside hitter Katarina Pantovic, who is from Vancouver, Canada, spent her fall semester practicing with the Canadian youth national team Monday through Friday. It was difficult for her to watch other collegiate volleyball squads resume practice while the Bears remained scattered across the continent. But despite yearning for the opportunity to practice with her Cal teammates, the freshman remained grateful for a gym and players to hit with.

“We all tried to stay on our own route — focus on ourselves and the things we could control,” Pantovic said.

Since March, both DeSa and Pantovic have remained fixated on the silver linings. They try not to dwell on what could have been.

“My parents always told me, ‘Control the controllables.’ I can’t really do anything about it, so I’m trying to make the best out of whatever my situation is,” DeSa said. “Being adaptable is the biggest key.”

The blue and gold reported to the Cal campus Dec. 28. While bonding with teammates may have been challenging over Zoom, things seem to be rapidly falling into place for the Bears now that they are sharing a physical space.

“This will definitely make us closer than we would have ever been. I don’t think that we would be this close if there wasn’t COVID-19,” Pantovic said. “One positive thing is that we’ve been able to grow as a team, grow as people and grow our friendships because of this whole situation.”

The student-athlete experience can serve as a glimmer of hope for all Cal students — freshmen and seniors alike. Zoom bonding feels stiff and cold for most, and Division I athletic teams are no exception. But the shared hardship of living through a pandemic forms a special kind of camaraderie — one warm enough to break the ice. When we are able to safely meet in person again, friendships might be formed easier than ever before.

It seems that the positive mentality honed through months of isolation and uncertainty will serve the freshmen well as they prepare to make their debuts on the court and in the classroom.

“I’m just looking forward to playing volleyball,” DeSa said. “And I really want to go into the libraries.”

Sarah Siegel covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected].