The ball rises to the net and Diana Gordon has her sights set.
Wham! With the force of her entire body, the outside hitter slams the ball down the right side of the court. It bounces untouched for a point. Gordon raises both hands, yells through the net and authoritatively high fives her teammates.
No, this isn’t game time. It’s not even an opponent in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
It’s practice. Against her own teammates.
The University of Alaska Anchorage may be 3-5 on the season. But this year, they have a more potent ingredient than they have ever had in Kim Lauwers’ seven years as head coach.
“This is the most competitive group I have ever coached,” Lauwers said. “They’ll do anything. They’ll hit the floor. They will go all over the court to get a ball. Whatever it takes.”
The competitiveness comes from many different places. Among them is the fight for positions. Four outside hitters are competing for two starting slots. Two setters are competing for a job. And everybody wants to play defense, but there’s limited spots there, too.
“They want to win their spot, and they want to win their point,” Lauwers said. “If they don’t, there could be changes.”
Still, Lauwers says the majority of that fighting spirit comes from the inside. And then it spreads like wildfire through the whole team.
“It’s a born-in trait,” she said. “Normally you will get a few competitive people, but this group is a little feisty. Even some quiet-natured kids when they come in practice become very competitive.”
As the team begins drills and scrimmages in practice, the team’s enthusiasm becomes readily apparent. First, Lauwers starts by dividing the team by up sending players to either side of the net. The screams become so loud as the players start high-fiving their new teammates that Lauwers has to quiet everybody down.
As the game starts, the intensity heats up even more. About midway through, team captain Jenny Mitchell goes up for a spike and gets rejected by middle blocker Katina Ozrelic. The next play Ozrelic gets it right back, stuffed by middle blocker Mindy Lindquist. The players waiting to rotate in are just as pumped as those in the game and the volume level in the gym reaches a crescendo.
“We get in each other’s faces in practice and yell at each other through the net,” Ozrelic said. “It’s a funny atmosphere. We are getting on each other’s backs, but at the same time we are having fun doing it.”
As practice progresses, Mitchell’s team drops four games in a row and has to scoot laterally along the volleyball court ten times as a drill for losing. They become more and more excited, diving for balls and slamming their bodies into the floor. Mitchell decides to hold a pep talk to get her squad on the same page and talk strategy. Remember this is still just practice. But the talk pays off and Mitchell’s team finally wins their first drill.
“No matter what six are out on the court or who’s against who, we play as if it’s a normal game,” libero Rachel Knecht said. “We’re holding nothing back. Sometimes we play and it feels like the World Series. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side. We want to win and we want all the points.”
Sometimes it can even be a little too much. The coaches have to calm everybody down and try to focus all the enthusiasm.
“It’s OK when we’re all on the same side and there’s an opponent, but at practice we have to control it a little bit,” Lauwers said. “We create pressure on ourselves when we shouldn’t.”
When it comes to the games, the Seawolves have struggled with consistency, Lauwers said. But the one thing Knecht said that is good about the attitude of this year’s squad is that mistakes are quickly forgotten.
“We don’t let anything get to us. We keep going,” Knecht said. “We don’t crumble. We stay fighting. That can take us pretty far.”