While the focus has been getting football back on the calendar in the fall, that’s far from the only collegiate sport hoping for a sense of normalcy when it comes to collegiate athletics. That’s certainly the case for TCU Volleyball, a program that turned the calendar with plenty of promise on the horizon, but now faces as uncertain a future as all of us.
To learn more about how Jill Kramer and her team have handled their new normal, and to get to know two new additions to the staff (Eysha Ambler and Kyle Luongo), the three jumped on a zoom call to update us on how they’ve built chemistry across the miles, how they are keeping their players in shape, and what getting back to the court will mean.
(Editor’s note: this interview was conducted a few weeks ago)
Jill Kramer is on the verge of building a powerhouse in Fort Worth. Years of recruiting at a high level, including a top ten class in 2019, have filled the coffers with talent at TCU. Though the 2019 campaign ended disappointingly, the future is bright; with a lineup that often featured four or more freshman on the floor, the valuable experience gained a season ago could pay dividends whenever the team gets back to playing ball. “I think last year was a lot of learning and growing for us — we had a lot of young players on the court. But that’s valuable; they all got lots of reps playing really competitive volleyball, volleyball in the Big 12”, Kramer said. There’s a significant learning curve when you make the jump for high school to any collegiate sport, but it’s not unusual to have a freshman or two on the court in collegiate volleyball programs. But for TCU last fall, it wasn’t just one or two having to carry the load, according to Kramer. “I think when you’re making the jump from high school/club, to college, when you’re one of one or two freshman on the court, if you do great, awesome. But as long as you don’t screw it up, you’re doing ok. But when there’s four or five, sometimes even six of you out there, then it’s really tough.”
That experience built positive momentum, and the team got off to a strong start in spring ball. With the help of two talented new assistants, the program was primed for a breakout campaign... and then everything changed.
Eysha Ambler matriculated to TCU from Auburn University, where she had coached the Tigers against the Frogs in Fort Worth in 2019. “I remembered the campus, how beautiful it was. The gym environment, how hard it was to play in there. Those were definitely things that drew me to the program. Then Jill [Kramer], what i had learned about her, what I knew about her from being in coaching.” Ambler started with TCU the week before spring break, and was with the team for their handful of spring practices. Kyle Luongo started the week of spring break, and was “only with the team for my interview. Everything since then has been virtual relationships. I worked on campus for a week before going back to Austin.”
Sent into sudden change, coaches and players alike have focused on what they can control over the last two months, and have found that their priorities have been greatly impacted in the process. “I have learned a lot during this time about all the things that I do that aren't necessary. Balancing time. Not just for me personally, but how many things we ask our players to do that aren’t necessary, just because we want to feel like we are doing all that we can,” Kramer explained. “At first it was ‘they have to work out ,how are we going to keep then working out?’ But then it became more about staying connected. Our culture is in such a great space right now. It’s kind of weird, because we are going through something we have never gone through before and hopefully never will again, but we are going through it together. And there’s a lot we can learn from that.”
Speaking of learning, it’s been a lot of learning on the job for Ambler and Luongo, who have been tasked with trying to learn a program and its players with hundreds of miles separating each from the other. But, in a way, getting to know the people outside of the sport, has been a good thing, according to Luongo. “I think in many ways it s a blessing that the priority right now is getting to know these girls, volleyball not being number one. It’s about who you are off the court, not what you can do for us on it.” Ambler agrees, echoing the sentiment. “This time has given us a lot of face-to-face time on Zoom calls to get to know the girls. You’re almost recruiting them again, getting to know them and their families. We do team calls, check in academically, check in on their mental health, check in on their families as well.” Kramer credits the strong culture of the program and the strong leadership shown by her players — young and veteran alike — with keeping the team close during these trying times. “I will say, that’s something that’s very special out this team; our senior leadership is extremely strong, but it doesn’t matter what class a player is in, they have some type of leadership role on this team. I think our staff helps with that, but the players do too. Everybody has a role and everybody matters.”
While the staff has made the best of an impossible situation, they all agree that they are looking forward to being back on the court together, to doing the thing that brought them all together in the first place. “Every time I think about how much I miss them, I think about how awesome it’s going to be when we get to walk into the gym again for the first time,” Kramer said. Luongo believes there will be a renewed sense of appreciation when sports do return. “A renewed sense of gratitude for college athletics, for sports, for shaking somebody’s hand. You kind of lose sight of it when you’re in the thick of it, but being able to just kind of have that joy and share that with a team — I will be doing cartwheels that first practice back. The atmosphere in the gym is going to be unlike it has ever been.” Ambler believes that the team will come back more motivated than ever after having the game they love taken away. “They’re hungry and want to get back — they want to do it for themselves. We are so excited to get back to practice. The team is excited, we are excited.”
And when they do? The expectations will be as high, or higher, than ever, according to the head coach. “We always want to compete. We want to compete to win a Big 12 title. And I think we have the talent to be one of the top four teams in the conference, I really do. Our goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament and compete for a championship; that’s what you do when you get there. I don’t want to limit us — that’s the goal. We want to be playing our game at the highest level possible.”