COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Sunbury native Mac Podraza didn’t know what to expect heading into her sophomore year as an Ohio State volleyball player.
She had a new head coach, a new coaching staff, and a new role as she was no longer a freshman.
“I didn’t come into this season with too many expectations,” Podraza said. “I even sent [new head coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg] an email at the beginning of the season saying, ‘I have no expectations’ and she responded and said, ‘You should have the expectation that we’re gonna be great!’ And so I came into this season just excited to play volleyball, excited to have a new staff, and to see what challenges we could overcome.”
But like everyone, nothing could have prepared these players and coaches for what challenges 2020 would present.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Buckeyes’ first-year head coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg said with a laugh. “I mean, we did. We know volleyball, we know how to teach it, but this was the first time I’ve been a head coach.”
“We were all in the same boat,” Podraza added. “Not really sure of what was gonna happen or how we were going to go about it.”
Before the team could even get to know their new head coaches, everything shut down due to COVID-19, but Oldenburg believes being forced to communicate in new ways may have helped this team find itself.
“You never want a pandemic, but in terms of building a culture, the timing was right and we were able to get to know each other,” she said. “We were able to have them get to know each other even more than they knew they could and we talked volleyball.”
“Culture is a big thing, especially in volleyball, like, girls bond to battle. We work together to be able to battle on the court,” Podraza explained. “So just all the time that we put in, like, over quarantine, we sat on zoom screens every single day.”
“By week three and four, we were having really good conversations about volleyball,” Oldenburg said. “In terms of our volleyball IQ, that was able to grow without being on the court and I felt like that was huge, and then when we got back in August and started training, we got to see that translate into some things.”
That also translated to matches when the season started in the spring. The Buckeyes shocked the Big 10 by starting the season 12-0, and then turned heads across the country rising to 11th in the national rankings.
“Something that got us to the point that we’re at right now is our coaching staff’s mentality of ‘OK, what’s next?’” Podraza said. “I think the more got into it and the more we started working, we realized our matches are going to get canceled. All we can do is get better from that and learn from it. I think that flip of a mindset to go, ‘OK, what’s next?’ and keep asking that question what’s next? How are we gonna figure out the next best thing? What can we do with this opportunity that we have now because, our match is canceled, our season is moved, what can we do now? I think that’s really pushed us all along and gotten us to where we are.”
For Oldenburg, one match in particular stands out when she saw this team could be really special.
“You look at how we were down 0-2 against Penn State, you know, I go into a huddle and I think most coaches would just ream a team and it was like, ‘OK, guess what’s next? Three more sets,’” she said with a smile. “Like let’s go compete. And they did.”
The Buckeyes kept competing the rest of the regular season, and now they have snagged the overall 9-seed in the NCAA tournament – the program’s first time back in the field since 2016.
“Part of me goes, ‘Why not?’ because I knew that we were talented,” Oldenburg said with a laugh. “I knew that we were going to be good. The other part is playing in a pandemic is not simple, it’s not easy.”
“We have a saying: 16 vs 6,” Podraza said. “We have 16 girls on our roster, so having our 16 be as solid and as united and as one as possible will help us beat the other team’s six (on the court). So it’s always our 16 vs. their 6. The girls that are on the bench are just as helpful as the girls on the court in every situation.”
“We checked the box of making the tournament but there’s more in their eyes,” Oldenburg said. “And that’s what’s exciting: we have the opportunity to do that and see how far we can go.”
With their high seed, the Buckeyes will have a first-round bye in the tournament and will take the court for their first match on Thursday, April 15 at noon. Ohio State will face the winner of the Missouri-South Dakota match. The entire tournament is taking place in Omaha, Nebraska.