COLUMBIA — Standing on the sidelines, assistant coach Juliana Quadrado lobs the volleyball into play. Moving to her left, outside hitter Cate Eckhardt bumps the ball into the air, and Paula Ferreira moves quickly forward, smashing it over the net.
Whatever language barrier might exist between the players is almost negligible, the bump-set-spike routine involves few words and goes off without a hitch. The players' body language is effortless.
"The girls use a lot of hand signals, and non-verbal forms of communication in play, even the players who speak the same language," head coach Melinda Wrye-Washington said. "Intensity and celebration are all the same even if spoken in different languages."
If you listen closely to the Columbia College women's volleyball team during practice, you might hear snippets of different languages, like when Brazilians Tally Mattos and Monica Dos Santos rapidly converse in Portuguese. You’ll hear the rhythmic roll of Maria Omondi’s English, which is accented with a British cadence, and you might even hear Ferreira make a quick grammatical error.
But above these quiet varieties in language and accent, encouragement and critique, there is the resounding smack of the volleyball against arms and fists. Despite a diverse range of languages represented among its players, the Cougars are proving fluent in their communication on the court.
In addition to English, some of the languages spoken by players on the team include Arabic, Portuguese and Swahili. Eckhardt is a native English speaker from Canada, and Quadrado and Ferreira, natives of Brazil, speak Portuguese.
“This is probably one of the most diverse teams in a while,” Cindy Fotti, the assistant athletic director, said. “We’ve got Egypt. We’ve got Brazil. We’ve got Canada. We’ve got Kenya.”
Not only do the players come from three different continents, they are also just now getting to know one another. With four returning players and eight newcomers, the Cougars are learning to function as a team while also working to communicate in the same language.
“The communication barrier isn’t really there on the volleyball court,” said Eckhardt, a senior from Ottawa, Ontario, who transferred to Columbia College this year. “On the court there’s a standard communication.”
Wrye-Washington focuses less on the semantics of language when she considers the international character of her team. She said that athletics involve a different kind of dialogue that is often hard to achieve.
“It’s always communication that’s the biggest issue, whether your team is all Americans or international,” Wrye-Washington said. “It’s an all-around struggle.”
Although the team’s communication often involves words, especially the shouts of encouragement that echo through Southwell Gym during each practice, Wrye-Washington said that the most essential thing that she wants to impress upon the players is an attitude.
“Everyone just needs to understand one thing: the championship mentality,” she said.
With eight new players on a squad of 12, Wrye-Washington knows that many of the women are still adjusting to a new playing situation. However, she stresses that the team must carry on its winning tradition despite its lack of veteran players. After winning the American Midwest Conference tournament in 15 of the past 16 years, the Cougars are accustomed to end-of-season success.
Columbia College’s assistant athletic director, Cindy Fotti, said that Wrye-Washington’s high expectations help the women to bridge the language barrier and bond. In order to meet their coach’s lofty standards, the teammates are working to perfect their English and, more importantly, understand each other’s on-court body language and playing styles.
“I think everyone is adjusting well,” Omondi said. “I think when you come in, the coach is going to expect a lot out of you, you expect a lot out of yourself playing for Columbia College.”
Omondi, a senior from Nairobi, Kenya, is starting her fourth year on the squad. She, along with Eckhardt, is a team captain and is working to adjust to the new players on the court. She said after two weeks of two-a-days, “We are on the same wavelength now.”
Fotti believes that the two weeks that the players spent together before students arrived on campus also helped form them into a cohesive unit.
“They’re doing everything for two weeks non-stop together,” Fotti said. “They eat at the same time, watch TV together. They’re all on the same schedule.”
After those first two weeks of intense training, the Cougars have come a long way in developing into a competitive unit. Each player is working to find a place on the team. Facing a variety of challenges, from grammar to leadership, Wrye-Washington said that the players, both veterans and new arrivals, see themselves as equals and are willing to work with one another to meet their goals.
“It’s been fairly easy to adjust because there are so many new people on the team,” Eckhardt said. “It’s more natural to all get along. If we were to come in and there were only a few new people, it might be a little bit weird.”
Ferreira, a freshman from Rio de Janeiro, was particularly concerned about her language skills. When the Cougars began practices in August, Ferreira asked her teammates to correct her English whenever possible.
“They definitely took her up on it and jumped all over her, correcting every little mistake,” Wrye-Washington said.
In addition to helping players adjust to new languages, the Cougars are open to new leadership and encouragement. Eckhardt, who played for the University of Albany for the past two years, was elected captain by her teammates last week.
Wrye-Washington said that she thinks it is a positive sign that the girls recognize Eckhardt’s leadership capabilities, despite the fact that she is a newcomer.
“Cate is very intense and is not okay with teammates letting the ball drop,” Wrye-Washington said. “She’s got the ‘push but don’t shove’ attitude that is key to the team.”