Cardinal O’Hara volleyball proves it can take the heat for openers

MARPLE >> Before a single volleyball left the bag Monday afternoon, the 50-some girls auditioning for spots on Cardinal O’Hara’s squad already set about fanning themselves to beat the gym’s stifling heat.

Ahead of them lay three hours in the stuffiness of O’Hara’s second-floor gym, the heavy air warmed like a closed oven seemingly since the end of the last school year. The only semblance of relief was provided by four turbine fans, rattling away to siphon off some of the rising hot air outside.

Even those seemingly inhospitable conditions, coach Bill Collins told the hopefuls assembled on three rows of bleachers, would serve their purpose over two days of tryouts.

“We’re going to see who’s going to be able to go two-and-a-half or three hours at tryouts,” Collins said Monday, “and it’s going to be a little synonymous with some game situations.”

The narrative about late-summer workouts centers on the strenuous outdoor sports, football in particular because of the heavy pads worn. But anyone who’s had to endure the convection of a school gym in summer knows that indoor ambiance remains a factor, especially for the fall’s only PIAA indoor sport. A few hours of chasing and sliding after shots can send the mercury rising to uncomfortable heights.

Like anything else, it’s a matter of coping. Every coach lists priority No. 1 as remedying the most dire effects of the weather by preventing exhaustion and injury with a renewed emphasis on hydration. But other alterations are subtler.

Collins, for instance, doesn’t shift the substance of his practice agenda. He may alter the arrangement slightly, though. Instead of lengthy periods of activity, he opts for shorter, higher-intensity bursts interspersed with more frequent water breaks. Conditioning work is best left for the early evening, when temperatures relent slightly, while technique drills occupy the heat of the afternoon.

But the consequence of those efforts is an added dimension of evaluation. It didn’t take long into Monday’s three-hour introductory practice to replicate the exhaustion brought on by a full match. That forces Collins’ charges to execute under the strain of fatigue that mimics the burden of a match. Players can point to specific matches — last year’s five-set loss Archbishop Carroll foremost among them — where that seasoning is valuable. That shaky-legged feeling that accompanies an hour or two in the heat also approximates the nervous feeling that several players recalled from last year’s trip to the PIAA Tournament, another challenge to be surmounted.

“I definitely think (the heat helps),” junior outside hitter Erin Daly said. “During those games that are five (sets), we’re always going to be tired, regardless of if it’s hot. So this is preparing us well.”

“I think this is good preparation for us,” teammate Charlee Borcky said. “We’re going to be hot during games, and we’re going to have some long games.”

The equation is slightly different for Strath Haven coach Kevin Haney, who reported more comfortable temperatures in Day 1 in the Panthers air-conditioned gym, a luxury for which he is extremely grateful. That allows him to push the fitness earlier in the process, starting Monday with two-a-day practices. There’s still a paramount importance on player safety under conditions that remain taxing, but there’s more leeway provided by a less sapping environment.

The cooling is a relatively new amenity for Haney, so he’s well acquainted with the notion of heat as an unavoidable selection factor.

“We like to push our kids as hard as we can push them to see who is in it for the long haul,” Haney said. “In years past where we didn’t have AC, we found out pretty fast who is tough enough to journey through to states with us and who’s not.”

Being confined in a gym on one of the precious last days of the summer can be a psychological challenge in itself, but it’s one that O’Hara’s core of talented juniors seems eager to attack.

“Especially girls my grade, we love it so much,” Daly said. “Even though it is a mark that summer is coming to an end, I’m excited to come back.”

Ultimately, Collins and his players view the heat as another of the myriad challenges to hurdle en route to their goals, whether it’s to make the team or go from the bench to starting, or starting to starring. Coaches hope to minimize the danger presented by the heat while preserving the benign test it offers athletes.

When that’s accomplished, the conditions can be co-opted as a beneficial force.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge, but you still have to push through it,” senior middle Gabby Napoleon said. “You just work hard, is all.”

“We’re effort people,” Collins said. “You give me effort, I’m not necessarily looking at the end result, but especially the later the day goes on, you start getting a little bit tired and the legs start feeling a little bit weak and a little bit (like) Jello, and who’s going to try to fight through that? Because it’ll be like a fifth set in September or October, who’s going to be able to fight through the pain and the tiredness?”

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