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Returning Serve: Union volleyball program takes opportunity to help storm-displaced LSU team

JACKSON, Tenn. - 9/24/2008 - By Steven Aldridge, Union University Sports Information Director

A storm rolls through a town, causing destruction to homes, businesses, and a college campus. Parts of the campus sustained major damage, while other areas of the campus serve as hospitals, command centers, and shelters.

Sound familiar?

No, this is not a revisit to the events of the February 5 tornado that came through Jackson and Union University’s campus.

This is the situation that faced the Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge following Hurricane Gustav. And in this instance, the LSU volleyball team is the focus.

The following is the story of how two volleyball programs are now connected by more than just the sport they play.

After playing on the road in Omaha, Neb. for their season-opening tournament, the LSU volleyball team found themselves a long way from home. With many parts of their campus still without power, and travel to the area restricted, the team had been asked to stay away for a few days.

As they started their trip home from Nebraska, the team was also informed that the volleyball tournament scheduled in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center that weekend had been cancelled. The Maravich Center, which is the home court for the LSU volleyball and basketball teams, was serving as a makeshift hospital for victims of the hurricane.

Head Coach Fran Flory needed a place to sit and wait for the word to return home.

Flory didn’t have to look far. Assistant Coach Steve Loeswick’s father lives in Lexington, Tenn. In addition, the other assistant coach, Jill Lytle Wilson, spent one season as the graduate assistant coach at the University of Tennessee-Martin for the 2001 season. Wilson met her husband Jared while at UT Martin. The coaching staff was familiar with the West Tennessee area.

After settling down at the Loeswick home in Lexington, the coaches began to contact area schools in search of practice facilities. After all, the No. 21 ranked NCAA DI volleyball team already begun play this season, and where in the process of looking for matches to replace the ones lost from their home-opening tournament.

Steven Gream, the head coach for the Union University volleyball team, got the email request on Monday morning. After getting approval, Gream called Wilson to set up practice times. The LSU team worked out more than two hours at Union’s Fred DeLay Gymnasium on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“This was an opportunity for us as a school and team to help others that are going through some of the same things that we did just a few months ago”, Gream said. “The community has been so gracious to our university in the recent months, and we want to take advantage of opportunities to return the favor to others in need.”

“This is one of those opportunities,” said Gream.

“We thank Union University and Coach Gream for allowing us the use of the gym and training room during our time in West Tennessee,” said Flory. She added that the fast response of Coach Gream really helped in getting a schedule set for the days they would remain in West Tennessee.

Flory has been through hurricanes and the interruptions they bring many times at LSU. As she began to call the hurricanes by name, “Gustav…Katrina…Rita…”, she remembered at least five different times in her 11 years as head coach that hurricanes interrupted parts of seasons.

“In 2005 following Katrina, our gym was used as a hospital for seven weeks, “ Flory says. “Our home matches were played at the University of Arkansas.”

Other campus sports, including the defending NCAA National Champion LSU football team announced the cancellation of their weekend home game with Troy (Ala.) University due to concerns for the community, student athletes, and damages to the stadium.

When asked about the most important things she can do when going through times such as these, Flory responded, “We want to make sure everyone knows we are safe, and to keep the group together.” Flory believes the teams should remain together, especially during the season. And she extended gratitude to the families of her team that understand her decision to keep the team together during this time.

“I’m a person that likes to be prepared for what is ahead,” said Flory. “I don’t keep secrets from my team. We talk openly about what we have to face, and then it is up to us to decide to be afraid or to accept the challenge.”

The 2008 LSU volleyball team has chosen the latter.

“I’m amazed at how well the kids have done and how close they have become during this time”, said Flory. “When you are cramped on the bus and in a house together for this amount of time, your character is tested. Their character has become stronger through this challenge.”

For Coach Gream and the Union volleyball players, this also provided an opportunity to see a nationally ranked NCAA DI team practice in their own gym.

“As a coach, I want to learn from others,” said Gream. “I watch things like their drills to see what I can add to our practices. This lets me see the drills in person, rather than having to watch drills on video or to read about drills in coaching materials.”

Gream adds, “Coach Flory and the LSU staff and players have gone out of their way to say thanks for the use of the facilities.” Not only did the purple and gold clad visitors from Louisiana extend kind words on numerous occasions, the players presented a large ‘Thank You!’ card to the Union team as they left Jackson on Wednesday afternoon. The card was created by the LSU players with a personal message from each member of the team.

But just when you thought connections through volleyball and recent storms was all that linked Union and LSU together during these days, another connection surfaced between the two teams. Union’s Ashley Young and LSU’s Lauren DeCivolamo were teammates at Belleville (Ill.) West High School.

“I knew that Lauren was at LSU and when coach told us that they would be practicing in our gym, I immediately thought of seeing her for the first time since high school,” Young said smiling.

The two led their high school team to a third place finish in the Illinois AA State Tournament back in 2005. That team from Belleville West has eight players that have played or are currently playing college volleyball.

Young was also watching the LSU practice with more in mind than just her high school friend. “It all comes down to fundamentals,” stated Young. “It’s nice to see that they have to work on many of the same struggles that we practice every day.”

And while Young was thinking about her high school teammate and what she was dealing with this week, she responded about how her road to Union was affected by the February 5 tornado.

Young was not on Union’s campus during the tornado, but had already begun the recruiting process with Union’s Coach Gream. “I was supposed to visit the campus the week of February 5, but coach called and said we would have to reschedule the visit.”

Many players might have moved on to other opportunities, but not Young.

“I saw the destruction that took place on the campus. I then noticed from a distance how the campus came together to help each other through the days and weeks to follow.”

One instance sticks out in her mind.

“Once I finally made my visit to Union, I saw how the players that were staying off campus came to the aid of the players that were in the dorms. I really liked how the girls proved their care for each other, despite it being the offseason for volleyball.”

As their Wednesday afternoon practice ended, the LSU staff and players prepared to hit the road. Once they left Jackson, the LSU team returned home briefly and then played in a tournament set up at the last minute for teams in the same situation.

Now it is the LSU campus that has been affected by a storm.

The time that Coach Gream and Coach Flory spent talking during these few days was filled with experiences of the two storms. Gream recalls, “We talked about how we’ve both been through struggles, some similar, and some different. However, the outpouring of support from our respective communities and others across the country will never be forgotten. “

Numerous memories and stories were brought back to the front during those two days for both Union and LSU volleyball programs. Those two days will be another memory that the players and coaches from both teams will not soon forget.


Steven Aldridge
Phone: (731) 661-5027
Sports Information
Fax: (731) 661-5182

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