Twenty hours before the plane containing delegates representing 11 different Big Ten volleyball teams touched down on foreign soil, all the players met up for a brief practice in Chicago.
There, they spent 45 minutes familiarizing themselves with one another before flying to Japan on June 14 for two weeks for the 2019 Big Ten Volleyball Foreign Tour.
As night fell, the players and staff made their way to the airport. They trudged through the terminals together before taking off, concluding their brief introduction.
When it comes to volleyball, Mark Rosen’s seen everything. After 27 years as a head coach, 20 with the Wolverines, Rosen acquired an array of knowledge, not just with collegiate teams but national teams, too.
He’s coached national teams, but even to him, being the head coach for the Foreign Tour team was “a very unique experience.”
First slotted as an assistant coach on staff, Rosen was promoted to the top position after former Iowa coach Bond Shymansky, the orginial head coach of the Foreign Tour team, was fired due to NCAA violations. Assuming his new position, Rosen had a hunch this experience coaching former opponents would be a new challenge.
“You’re coaching players that you’ve actually coached against, so that’s a weird dynamic,” Rosen said.
Rosen has seen the scouting reports on these players over the seasons, but building a system around a ragtag team last minute was a tall task.
“Some of it was just finding what players do, what roles go well,” Rosen said on making adjustments from match to match. “I didn’t really go into it with really that much information about the players. So we were figuring out on the fly who handles what situations well, who do we want to put in certain positional situations.”
Natalie Smith spent the majority of her first two years at Michigan as a defensive specialist. There was no need for a different player to get reps at libero during career starter Jenna Lerg’s tenure. But upon Lerg’s graduation, the spot opened up, and Smith rose to the occasion.
During the spring season, the junior was the Wolverines’ primary libero, but even then, her reps were limited. There were just seven games over the course of the spring, so the trip to Japan to face high-caliber teams — collegiate and professional — proved valuable for a player getting adjusted to a new role.
“It was a really good opportunity for her,” Rosen said. “Being a younger libero, trying to step in and trying to take over for Jenna, and that role, that’s a big shoe to fill. I thought it was a great extra opportunity for her, another two weeks to play volleyball, another opportunity to be in that role.”
The opportunity wasn’t without its challenges, though. There was only one libero spot on the Big Ten team, and Penn State’s Jenna Hampton eyed it accordingly. In the end, Smith earned the role and Hampton became the designated defensive specialist.
What stood out to Rosen was Smith’s skill as a first-touch passer and — taking from previous role as defensive specialist — her defense.
“She ended up playing libero in pretty much every match,” Rosen said. “And (Hampton) played (defensive specialist) and part of that is because she passed consistently, she defended really consistently, and she played really well.”
When the team landed in Osaka, Japan, complications arose.
When the players and coaches arrived, they prepared for a full day of activity — eyeing a practice at Senri Kinran, a university in Osaka. They had their first matchup later that afternoon and a team dinner that evening.
But the team couldn’t practice due to problems with the Senri Kinran practice facility.
“I think there was a shooting that was going on there,” Smith said. “So we ended up going to a different part of town.
Prioritizing safety, the team used its practice time, instead, to explore the city, stopping by temples and various parts of the town.
For Senri Kinran, losing practice for a day was just lost practice. For the Big Ten team, it was losing so much more — they only had a set number of practices to begin with. After hours on a plane, moments after meeting as teammates for the first time, that practice wasn’t simply business as usual. It was a chance to further gauge each player, form chemistry and just get into a rhythm.
For a team already struggling with familiarity, the lack of practice was a heavy blow.
And it showed the next day when the two teams faced off. The Foreign Tour team not only lost, but lost badly.
“We step on a court against a college team who really wasn’t very good,” Rosen said. “And as I watched them play and warm up, they weren’t very physical, they weren’t really that good.”
Not really that good, but good enough to dominate the Foreign Tour team and blow it out in a 4-0 sweep? To lose 25-16, 25-15 to a team filled with players no taller than the shortest player on the Big Ten team’s end?
But to Rosen, the answer was simple.
“They were organized and we weren’t organized, because we didn’t really have a chance to organize the team. It was bad volleyball.”
Added Smith: “That was disappointing, but also I think that you can’t become an All-Star amazing team, ever, in 12 days.”
The next day, the schedule for the Big Ten team was wake up, go on a morning sightseeing session in Osaka, and then head immediately to the game with an hour to warm up. On a normal gameday at Michigan, the players would have three to five hours to get into game mode.
“Here,” Rosen said, “we did it in 20 minutes.”
Combine the time crunch with the lack of chemistry and practice, and the source of the frustrating result became clear.
“It was frustrating for everybody, and the players weren’t trying to play bad,” Rosen said. “It was nobody’s fault. It’s just, you’re trying to organize this group without any time or any opportunity to organize it. So I thought that along with everybody else, it was really frustrating that first night, because we were looking on, ‘How is this team losing?’ ”
The team concluded its day in Osaka with the bruising loss and traveled to Kyoto to repeat the cycle, this time with a new city and a new team, but a similar result.
Despite another three-set loss, this one felt different to the team. None of the sets were a one-sided affair. Instead, the team strung together three tightly contested sets and saw the growing pains beginning to subside.
“I thought in the second night, we played another college team who was a little bit better,” Rosen said. “And we played better.
“… We were like, ‘Hey, if we had played the team we played last night, we probably would have won.’ We could see them progressing.”
A college team and a professional team are separated by a lot of things: salaries, endorsements, contracts. But the biggest factor in the matchup between the Foreign Tour team and Denso Airybees, a professional team based in Nishio, was practice regulation.
As college athletes, the players and coaches are limited to 20 practice hours weekly. As Rosen joked with his team, “Those guys are probably at 20 hours of training by Tuesday.”
And with more time to practice and train, comes a higher level of play. Additionally, the style of play in Japan is completely different from the U.S. Whereas in the U.S., physicality is the name of the game, speed rules supreme in Japan. In the matchup, the differences in style and training showed.
“They practice a lot, and you can tell by the way they play,” Rosen said. “They’re not very physical. They don’t outphysical you, they outplay you.”
The end result was another three-game sweep, but unlike before, the growth of the Big Ten team could be seen as the sets progressed. 25-12, 25-18, 25-19. The more the teams played, the more adjusted to the speed the Big Ten players got.
They were playing together and playing better volleyball. The next night, in front of a crowd of 1,500, the Big Ten team played Denso Airybees again. There, they made its breakthrough.
“They’re so fast, and their system is so intricate,” Rosen said. “And a lot of these players had never seen anything like that so we had to make some adjustments on the fly.”
Because the players in Japan were so much shorter, they ran their offense faster, forcing the contact to come around the chest area — a different experience for the players who are used to extending the length of their arms in hopes of tipping the ball with fingertips. The new point of contact and speed took time to adjust to, but with a proper game plan, they could envision the style vividly post match.
There was no practice time in between the matches, despite being on two different days. There was only a video session, where the team sat down and talked about what it had to do.
“Just speed comes so fast, you can’t move very much,” Rosen said. “Once the ball is set to the hitter, from set to hit, we call that base to read, you have no time, so you got to kind of position yourself in a way where you basically just have to face the action. You can’t really move into a new position.”
The player that excelled in that was none other than Natalie Smith.
Smith provided support in more ways than just as a libero, proving instrumental to the 3-1 win against Denso Airybees. She stepped up as a leader.
People who have worked with her say she’s an easy person to play with. She communicates well, works hard and connects easily.
“She can slide into your team and be pretty comfortable pretty quickly,” Rosen said.
Once Smith acquainted herself with the team, she took the next step as a player, taking a leadership role. As a libero, she occupied a large part of the court. However, just as the team didn’t have any scouting reports on the opposition, the teams they faced didn’t have any on them. So it boiled down to what the teams saw on the court.
“They see a girl in the other colored jersey, and they’re going to assume she’s probably a pretty good passer,” Rosen said. “So she really didn’t get tested a lot, so she was helping the other players a lot by pushing their court and making sure she took more court, to ease them off, to help them.”
It was something Smith had seen time and time again. They avoided her in the service game, giving her space on the court. That paid its dividends in the rematch against Denso Airybees. From her ball control to her defense, Smith actively commanded the first touch and enabled an efficient offense.
“I thought (Smith) did a fantastic job of doing that defensively,” Rosen said. “Because it’s from setter to hitter, it’s bam bam, and they had to be really good at making adjustments, so I thought it was a great opportunity for her. And believe me, she’s not going to ever see anything faster than what we saw there.”
Picking up on Denso Airybee’s tendencies was the turning point of the series. As every point passed, every set finished, the roar of the packed house in Kyoto quieted little by little, until nothing but silence answered the sound of the Foreign Team finishing a kill.
Four sets later — 25-22, 25-23, 25-15, 26-24 — and the Big Ten team prevailed, securing its only victory of the trip.
“They’re all rooting against you, and then you beat them so easily,” Smith said. “It’s just so silent and serene.”