Displaced Loyola volleyball seeks normalcy as it continues 2021 season

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NEW ORLEANS —The devastation caused by Hurricane Ida changed the plans for a lot of college athletics programs, and the same rings true for the Loyola University New Orleans volleyball team. The Wolf Pack squad had their season put on pause, as they attempt to restart while setting up camp in Montgomery, Alabama until it’s safe to return to the Uptown New Orleans campus. 

Just two days before Hurricane Ida made landfall in Southeast Louisiana, Loyola was holding its Wolf Pack Welcome tournament in the University Sports Complex, hosting matches against Wayland Baptist (Texas) and Xavier Friday, August 27, and Saturday, August 28. The easy decision was made following the Friday night matches to cancel Saturday’s action to allow all teams time to leave the city ahead of the storm’s landfall that was set for Sunday.

“(Assistant) Coach Robbie (Pitre) and I, along with guidance from our AD Brett Simpson, made the decision to evacuate our entire team together,” Loyola Head Coach Jesse Zabal said. “We knew that by doing this, our entire team would be provided for, with a few having a less accessible road home, and we could salvage our season since we knew it would continue eventually.”

The team left campus Saturday morning, and like most evacuees leaving the New Orleans area, the normal four-and-a-half-hour trip took nearly nine hours. The routine in Montgomery stayed simple and consistent: breakfast, practice, lunch, rest, and dinner with some extracurricular activities like bowling and walks along the downtown riverfront. The team has also kept up with its normal workout schedule, as Loyola’s Athletics and University Sports Complex Coordinator, Tim Kettenring, programmed workouts the team could do based on what was available to the team. 

“We’re so grateful to Jesse and Robbie, who not only took our student-athletes out of harm’s way and have done their best to create a sense of normalcy but have done so while managing their own personal situations relative to Ida. They are the epitome of servant leaders,” Simpson said.

Loyola’s temporary situation wouldn’t be possible without the help of those outside the program either. Faulkner University Athletics Director Hal Wynn and Volleyball Head Coach Tori Renda have been huge assets for the Wolf Pack, offering plenty of practice time in Faulkner’s gym as well as providing lunch in the university’s cafeteria daily and laundry services. One of Faulkner’s student organizations, Chi Omega Chi, made goody bags for each individual on the team, too, providing essential items like shampoo, toothpaste and hand sanitizer with other items like candy and reusable water bottles. William Carey, Dalton State, the Southern States Athletic Conference, the team’s parents, and Zabal’s best friend Missy Holley all have played a huge role over the last week as well, providing the team with meals, Starbucks gift cards and hotel arrangements. 

“I can’t say thank you enough for all the support we’ve received and we are truly blessed to have all of these people and groups in our corner,” Zabal said. 

The team was scheduled to play in Xavier’s Big Easy Blastoff tournament Friday, Sept. 3, but that was obviously canceled, so Zabal scrambled to find matches within driving distance of Alabama’s capital city to help keep her team engaged, because with Loyola’s academics on hiatus, the student-athletes didn’t have classwork to distract themselves. After a failed attempt to play matches in Macon, Georgia, Loyola was finally able to secure a match against Fisk University (Tennessee) Tuesday with a possibility of more games being scheduled on the horizon. 

It takes more than just two teams showing up to play matches. There needs to be referees, game day staff, and obviously, a place to play. Middle Georgia State Athletics Director Chip Smith and Volleyball Head Coach Tui Toafono made their home gym available in Macon, and a match with Columbia International University (South Carolina) was also secured, but the challenges of filling game day staff and official roles were too much to overcome. During that time, Fisk had a match get canceled, so Head Coach Jess Enderle called Zabal with the opportunity to play. 

“All the teams we’ve spoken to and worked with throughout this process have been incredibly helpful and supportive of us,” Zabal said. “We are so grateful for everything they’ve done.”

After playing just one match in The Den approximately 40 hours prior to Ida’s landfall, Loyola will most likely be displaced for the remainder of the season because of the damage the University Sports Complex took during the storm. While power has been restored to campus, the team will not return to New Orleans until every person a part of the program is guaranteed to have access to power, water and all of the normal essentials. After those needs are settled, a new home for practices and matches will have to be found. 

“We’re confident that we’ll have (a place to practice and play), but we sure will miss practicing and competing in The Den,” Zabal said. “We know it’s not forever and we hear there is great and quick work being done while we’ve been away to get us back as quickly as possible. We know our season will continue regardless, so we are just looking forward to getting home and getting back to some of the comforts and normalcy we’ve all been missing.”

Loyola has started the season 4-5 with two wins over Top 25-ranked teams in the process, which put the Wolf Pack in a position to receive votes in the first in-season NAIA Top 25 Poll of the season.

{Courtesy: release from Loyola athletics}

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