In place of their regular afternoon practice on Wednesday, the East Carolina volleyball team volunteered to help move freshmen into their dorm rooms. They carried boxes and shelves and televisions, and when they left they gave their new friends Pirate volleyball posters, complete with the 2019 schedule.
This effort to inspire new fans — and get a decent upper body workout at the same time — reflects the confidence and unity the players feel as they grind through the preseason and prepare for their opening match at a tournament in Puerto Rico on August 30.
With all of their key contributors from last season returning and several talented players back from injuries, the ECU players and staff are embracing the opportunity to prove themselves in the American Athletic Conference.
“I feel very confident we can go all the way to the top,” said senior middle blocker Toya Osuegbu. “I feel we have a strong team and I feel like we’re an underdog this year, so we have a lot of confidence that we can take it all and take some teams out this year.”
In her seventh season at the helm, head coach Julie Torbett has established ownership of the program, and even though every group of players has its own personality, she sees consistent threads of hard work, team unity and a constant striving to be more competitive.
This team in particular has meshed off of the court, and those strong relationships show up on the court.
“Every team is different every year, so the culture changes,” Torbett said. “You want to create consistency of expectations, so I think everyone has come to understand what I expect and what they’re going to be required to do.”
One difference from this time last year is the team’s clean bill of health; last year injuries affected several talented players, including junior defensive specialist Brandee Markwith, who agrees with her coach that the 2019 squad is exceptionally close and positive about even the most strenuous days of practice.
“I think our team just really likes to have a lot of fun, and the energy going into this season has been overwhelmingly enjoyable,” said Markwith. “In all areas, even in the locker room, we’re having a really good attitude toward the preseason.”
Markwith can’t remember a time when she and her teammates were so excited about playing actual matches, and Torbett said that she has incorporated more scrimmaging into their twice-daily workouts because the team thrives in the setting that most approximates a game day. They are eager to prove their mettle against top conference opponents like Central Florida and Cincinnati, both of whom received preseason Top 25 votes.
Their initial aim is to make an impression at the end of the month in Puerto Rico, where they will face Providence, George Mason and Evansville.
ECU, which finished the 2018 campaign with a 13-16 record, will feature a more dynamic offense and solid talent at the vital positions of setter and libero. Torbett is in the enviable situation of working with plenty of versatile talent — players who can thrive in different spots on the floor and keep opponents guessing.
Juniors Kaiya Heyliger-Powell, Sydney Kleinman, Bri Wood, and Osuegbu, the only senior, are expected to make key contributions at the net.
“Because we have so many options offensively, we have a lot of weapons and a lot of versatile players that can play multiple positions,” Torbett said. “We’re extremely dynamic and strong — big jumpers, heavy swingers. They’re just going to be a really exciting team to watch. They’ve got all the pieces. It’s just going to be up to them to put it all together.”