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Volleyball tournament serves up social and academic teamwork

This spring, a student-organized, college-wide volleyball tournament helped Hokie engineers reconnect – and relax a little – in the wake of pandemic disruption.

How do you teach entry-level physics to budding engineers?

You ask them to figure out the minimum speed at which a player must hit a volleyball to get it over the net.

How do you bring those engineers together after a pandemic steals part of their college experience?

Get them to play the game. 

That’s what Matthew Drew, a recent alum who graduated in May, did early in 2022 with help from his materials science and engineering (MSE) academic advisor Michelle Czamanske.

“I created a giant survey,” Drew said. “Michelle emailed the advisors in all the departments, and the advisors sent it out to every single person in engineering.”

Like a calculated serve, it went right over the net, and the College of Engineering (COE) Volleyball Tournament was launched. Students in nearly every department fielded a team. In fact, a couple of departments — chemical engineering and aerospace and ocean engineering — each recruited enough players for two teams. The eager response signaled a pent-up need for connection after two years of lockdowns and virtual events. 

“I think it was important because this gave them an opportunity to get back out there and to reconnect with their classmates and even the students that they sometimes see in other departments,” Czamanske said. 

Czamanske thought it was so important, she helped arrange for T-shirts for the MSE team. Other teams agreed on colors or, in one case, Hawaiian shirts, as their uniform. 

An apt sport for engineers 

Drew has spent his final semester before heading off to work at Northrop Grumman as organizer, player, and scorekeeper of a tournament that his fellow engineering students say has helped them recover some of the losses of the coronavirus pandemic.

Drew said he chose volleyball because it’s easy to learn and is a particularly good game for engineers. It’s often used in physics problems that first-years learn to solve. Philosophically, it appeals to the engineering mindset, he said, because although strength can help a player, accuracy is more important.

“And the other thing is getting engineers to communicate with each other,” he said. “It's a very verbal sport. I keep telling my team: ‘You call who you're passing to; you talk on the courts.’ And a lot of these team dynamic things, I think, translate perfectly to group engineering settings.”

Meet the teams

Drew said the skills and team spirit they’ve practiced on the court can also translate to the lab and the classroom.

“After that freshman year, you don't interact with a lot of people from other majors really often,” Drew said. “Connecting with other majors helps in case you need to do any of those interdisciplinary projects.”

Drew created a two-pronged schedule. The teams played practice games through February and March to get everyone ready. While many had played volleyball in high school or for fun, many had not. Then, in April, they played elimination matches in the Rec Sports Field House on Beamer Way, until only two teams remained: biological systems (BSE) and aerospace (AOE).

To come out on top, a team had to win three out of five sets in the final match. Almost even in ability, BSE and AOE played all five sets before BSE took the prize: bragging rights. But teams weren’t strictly divided by department.

Jaiden Shah, BSE’s captain, was the only biological systems major on his department’s team. His classmates were interested in playing, Shah said. But many had scheduling conflicts. 

So together he and Drew decided it would be alright to recruit from outside the department. It became a radically interdisciplinary team. Senior Gideon Crawford played for his home team of MSE, and then suited up for BSE. The BSE team even stretched outside engineering, drawing in an accounting major and a student from architecture, Shah said.

Creating community on the court

Families and significant others sometimes gathered on the sidelines to cheer on and encourage their players.

April and Rich Kleinfeldt, Virginia Tech alumni, came to watch their daughter, industrial systems engineering team captain Annabell Kleinfeldt, play in the semi-finals. The family moved to Blacksburg two years ago from South Carolina, where April grew up and was a tennis champion. 

“She got injured when she was 15, and she just didn't recover from it,” April said of Annabel. “This has been great for her to have a team sport to participate in because tennis was such a solitary sport.”

Another alum, Morgan Weis came from Johnson City, Tennessee, to cheer on her boyfriend Drew, and one of his competing teams.

“I’m actually an industrial and systems engineering (ISE) alumna,” Weis said.

The couple said they have maintained a long-distance relationship since Weis graduated last year and went to work at a Walmart distribution center.

Despite often passionate play, the leaps, falls, and even one epic dive that left mining engineering’s Baxter Jones wearing one shoe — the other sitting behind him on the court — have been for fun. Even missed spikes, occasional kicks, and out-of-bounds serves got high fives of encouragement, and losses didn’t discourage anyone. After MSE and ISE got knocked out of the semi-finals, they played several games against each other, while the final teams battled it out on a nearby court.

Meet the captains, starting with Mathew Drew the tourneyment creator.

Some, such as mining engineering student Nomin Choibat, had played volleyball competitively in high school, but enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the COE tournament.

“You feel more comfortable when you’re not playing to win,” Choibat said. “It brought me a lot closer to people in my department and let me get to know them a little bit more. With COVID, I was a little isolated, and I didn't get to know a lot of them that well. But this experience has definitely helped me.”

Others discovered new friends and a new sport. Katherine Milton, a senior, had never played volleyball before joining the MSE team.

“Everyone's been really welcoming, even though I have no idea what's going on,” Milton said. “I knew a few people on the team already, but there were some people I'd never met before. So getting to actually play with them and getting to know them has been really great.”

It was more than pandemic isolation that drew Niqui Lacquement, a graduating senior in civil and environmental engineering, to captain her team.

“It's just been good to meet people in my major because the pandemic kind of hurt the social aspects of things,” Lacquement said. “I'm also an introvert, so meeting new people in general is easier this way.”

According to some students, a whole college-wide community has grown out of volleyball. 

“Specifically, I've met a lot of people from there that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Shah said. “I never knew anyone in ISE before this. Now it’s a whole bunch of different engineering majors, with some other people in there, too, coming out whenever they have free time to play. It's been really, really nice to meet people during that.”

Drew, Shah, and a handful of other players have formed a committee to plan for a second tournament for next academic year.

“I hope it will become a tradition after I graduate,” Drew said.

Video by Spencer Roberts, Photos by Peter Means

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