Morgan Kull remembers slumping off the court last fall, in the middle of a long losing streak.
She headed over to Auburn volleyball’s loyal group of core supporters. The best thing she ever hears from them, she says, is that those fans just love to see the team smiling.
So as losses piled up last season, what she heard after one of them stuck with her:
“You guys haven’t been smiling,” a well-meaning fan said.
It’ll be different this year, she promises.
Re-tooled and re-loaded with a different group and an all-new attitude, the Auburn volleyball team serves its season into play with an exhibition at 4 p.m. Saturday in Auburn Arena against Georgia Tech.
Auburn enters off a disappointing 2018 season, but also a spring that saw some roster turnover and plenty of soul-searching made by returners pairing with five team newcomers.
In the ashes of those struggles that saw a talented group high school stars fall apart as a team, the Tigers who’ve stuck it out are building the team back up from ground level — with humility and humbleness, and all that talent still in tow.
“I think we’re trying to prove that we’re a new group,” said Kull, the junior setter. “There’s definitely, hopefully, going to be a different vibe on the court.”
Auburn went 12-16 last year, marking the second-fewest wins the program’s picked up in a season under ninth-year head coach Rick Nold, outside only his first season at Auburn in 2011. It was bad, and he and his players aren’t afraid to say it. A team loaded with talent couldn’t keep up chemistry, on or off the court. Seven of 17 players are gone from last year’s roster. Returners visited with the team’s sports psychologist in the spring.
What’s left is a group bent on turning the program back around, charging into a road-warrior schedule that sends the team away from home all through the month of September — Tigers against the world.
“We’re all good,” sophomore libero Bella Rosenthall can say confidently. Talent wasn’t the problem last year, either. But this year, humbled by a losing season, the entire team has started from zero and plans to use and respect that talent all around instead of competing with it.
“Last year, there was negativity that was so not needed,” she said.
“I think the difference is just kind of that we’ve been able to respect each other a lot more,” Kull said. “I think after a lot of people left and stuff, we kind of understood that the group that we have now are the people that were dedicated to building this program and continuing the season, just kind of building on what we wanted to focus on.
“And positivity was one of those things.”
Those chemistry troubles showed up tangibly on the court, Nold said. He has the analytics to prove it. In preseason the team has worked to improve its program-compiled percentage tracking how often the team can come off transition and work together and put an acceptable attack on the ball going the other way. Living and dying with the hitting percentage is another deal. For now the team is working on playing together more efficiently in order to get more of those favorable attacks across.
“At the end of the day, you watch and you see, and you’re going to go off that as well,” Nold said.
Last year, there was plenty he and his Tigers didn’t like to see.
Now, though, he said his players are all focused on working well together — though getting that done is another question ahead.
“I think everybody definitely was (ready to work together), but you know, it’s trying to learn how. You’ve got to learn that part,” Nold said. “And that’s something we’ve spent a lot of time with, and we continue talking about every day.
“I think we’ve learned a lot. We’ve got to keep learning, but you know, I think you see in the gym each day, there’s just a really positive mentality and, you know, working to get better helping each other get better. And that’s something I think will help us a lot.”
After Saturday’s exhibition, Auburn will host the War Eagle Invitational on Aug. 30-31, before hitting the road for a long month that’ll include the start of SEC play late in September before the team finally returns to Auburn Arena for another home game in October.
“I think it’s fun,” Rosenthall said of that road schedule. “It’s just another time where we can all bond with each other—on the road, in the airport.”
For a team working to bond together, the road is the place to do that.
“Every meal is together,” Kull said. “You’re all on the same schedule. So that’s just kind of a good time to be with someone else. When you have your road trip buddy, the person that sits across from you on the bus, you get close with them — the person you sit by on the plane.
“It’s just the team.”
It’s the team — the same team tasked with building Auburn back into a winning program in 2019.