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China experience will help Kaz Brown deal with adversity this season

-1“In Their Words” is an exclusive, two-part series from the University of Kentucky covering Kentucky volleyball players Kaz Brown and Ashley Dusek’s experiences with Team USA’s volleyball training programs this summer. Brown was a member of the Collegiate National Team’s China tour, while Dusek participated in the Collegiate National Team training program in Indianapolis.

By KAZ BROWN

The Tryouts:

This year was similar for Ashley and I because we both tried out last year. Our coaches sort of left it up to us whether we wanted to try out again or not. We made the decision to go for it and flew out to Colorado in February.

When I think back to what helped me stand out to the coaches, my blocking was a focus, and that helped me shine. When you go to team tryouts like the Collegiate National Team, a lot of people take an offense-first mindset. People are trying to put the ball away, make flashy kills at the 10-foot line and stuff. I’m on the other side of the spectrum – I’ve always taken pride in my defense and it feels like other people let that slide in those practices. With a lot of other middles trying to get kills, I made sure to make defense the focal point of my game, which stuck with the staff.

The Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs was so cool because when you walk through those doors you know that every US Olympian has to walk through there before they go play in the Olympic Games. The history was incredible – there are the rings and flags everywhere and there’s all of these records on the walls. You see all these names that you know displayed and it’s just a cool and important experience. To be in that position, to know you could potentially represent your country, is huge.

Trying to build a hitter-setter connection with the other girls so quickly was one of the tougher parts to figure out. You can be on a court with someone for 15 minutes and then not see them again for the whole tryout. Between trying to build that connection and then setting up a connection to block with the outsides is tough. It’s sort of a thing that clicks or it doesn’t, but you can’t force it. I really had to have that “next play” mentality, pushing forward when things didn’t work out and staying focused when they did.

Being able to tryout with Ashley and D-Mack by my side was probably one of the coolest parts. It’s reassuring to know you have someone by you, and the three of us were the original 2014 class, so it was special to be able to share with one another. Seeing a familiar face when you’re walking on to the court and being able to catch up is great. Knowing that I had a support system in case anything happened was reassuring. It was really cool to be a part of.

The Moment:

I was really excited when I found out I was headed to China. Through most of the winter my biggest motivation was not being named an All-American. All during the offseason it was in the back of my mind and it still is a factor now – it’s motivation heading into the season. Getting notified that I was going to get to play for team USA with a lot of these people who were All-Americans and the best in the country showed that if you have a driving force and really dig deep and work hard that things work out. It was really awesome to see how all that work evolved in such a short period of time. 

The Team USA Experience:

We didn’t waste any time getting started once I got to California with an intense day and a half of training before we left for China. We got in a morning and afternoon session on the campus of El Camino College in Torrance, California. The Pac-12 also has an All-Star team that goes on the China tour as well so we shared the gym with them. We didn’t practice together, but we traveled and practiced in the same space, so it was interesting with all of them around.

Possibly the weirdest part of the experience was only knowing the girls from watching them play online or on TV, but never really playing against any of them. A lot of the girls were at Pac-12 or Big-12 schools and we don’t see a lot of those in our non-conference matches, so it was really strange. Jordan Thompson, who plays at Cincinnati, I had the chance to meet beforehand for a few minutes when we played them this spring. She showed out when she played us – I can’t remember how many kills she had, but it was a lot. We were the only two who hadn’t been with the team before the China trip so we just jumped in.

The first day of practice was an adjustment. I hadn’t played high-level volleyball in a long, long time, so shaking off the rust was a challenge early. While we were there, we got to watch the USA national team play in the FIVB World Grand Prix, which was an extremely cool experience. Watching it first-hand, being in that gym and experiencing that atmosphere really opened your eyes to what you’re playing for, who’s watching you and what you have the potential to do one day.

The next day we had one practice before we headed onto the flight – which I was completely unprepared for. It was 14 hours and I didn’t sleep at all. It was rough. But when we got to the hotel you better believe that was some of the best sleep of my life.

We spent our first full day in China sight-seeing in Shanghai. Shanghai was really cool because it’s very modern in comparison to how a lot of people view China. It’s known for its downtown area and specifically the Oriental Pearl Tower, which lights up with different colors. All the architecture there is extremely modern and I was really impressed by it. We went to some traditional shops outside of town too that we’re really cool. That first day of tourism got us ready for people to stare at us everywhere we go and wanting to take pictures with us. Being 6-4 in China is absurd, we definitely stuck out as a group. Once they figured out we were with USA volleyball then even more people wanted photos. It was cool to have people interested in what you were doing and wanting to stop for pictures.

We stayed in Shanghai for a couple of nights and I loved my time there. We practiced there over the next few days before heading to Jintan which is a smaller district between Shanghai and Nanjing. While we were there we played our first game against Chinese teams.

The way in which the Chinese teams play is so different. It’s really efficient, really fast and really clean. They don’t make a lot of the same mistakes that we do over here in the states. They also approached practice very different than we do. They may practice for six hours a day but only compete in one or two drills. At a normal practice we’ll probably cover five or six drills in two or three hours. When I heard that they may only do one or two drills over five hours it was mind blowing – I felt like it would be so monotonous. But after watching them play, their diligence and routine definitely showed. Later in the day we played them in a five set match and they only hit two balls out of bounds the entire time. It was unheard of. They just don’t make stupid errors.

Jintan was a much more traditional Chinese town. We first got really introduced to the culture surrounding Chinese food there, which was an experience within itself. You may not know what exactly was on the table but you tried a little bit of everything just to see what it was and to make sure you’re being respectful. I got to try a lot of new things and was prepared for it after all the girls on the team gave me a heads up after they went to China back in 2014 with Kentucky.

As the trip went on, I really got to know the two girls from Kansas – their setter Ainise Havili and Madison Rigdon who plays outside for them. Both were really cool people. We had some funny conversations about going to big basketball schools. Kansas volleyball made it to the Final Four this year and shocked a lot of people along the way and their story about that journey was special. I’m really looking forward to keeping up with them. 

After Jintan we went to Nanjing. We did some sight-seeing including a museum on the Nanjing Massacre. It was really interesting and a very heavy day. I had heard of it before, but obviously it’s not a major part of historical curriculum growing up in the states. In the greater scheme of things it wasn’t that long ago, so it was important for us to learn as a big part of their culture and history. That trip was probably one of my favorite parts of the entire experience.

We played the same team we played in Jintan again in Nanjing and it was great for us to see how far we had come. In our first match we were still rusty, switching in and out and trying to get used to the system. In the second match we were executing much better and came together as a team, so that growth was great to see.

The next town we went to we didn’t play in any matches or practice. We went to a children’s school where they had girls and boys volleyball programs. We exchanged gifts and played volleyball with them which was a highlight of the trip. Sports are amazing in the way that they break down all kinds of barriers – age, language – which was really cool because they might not know much English, but they know what peppering is, so once you toss them a ball it’s on. They were really happy to see us and to see their faces light up when you gave them a shirt with UK on it or played with them for 15 minutes was rewarding. It lets you know the impact you have.

We finally arrived in Beijing, where we spent most of our time. The first two days were strictly practice and sight-seeing. We went to the Great Wall which was amazing. The silk market awesome too.  We went to the Forbidden City too which was so cool, it was just so much history. Their passion and dedication to preserving their history is great to see.

We got the tournament started on the third day. We tuned up by scrimmaging the Pac-12 team the day before the tournament started and it helped a lot. I think that’s where I got my transition into a starting role. In our first two matches I was coming off the bench and was really discouraged by it. It was frustrating and between the bench role and adjusting to teammates, the time change, the sleep schedule and the new area it all weighed on me a bit. When I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to early on it was tough, but I kept pushing to try and find that light at the end of the tunnel. I made sure heading into the scrimmage that I gave it all I could and it was reassuring to earn that starting spot after we finished.

In the first round of the tournament we fell in five to the Chinese Junior National Olympic team. They were incredible, and like a lot of the teams we faced just really, really clean. Their offense moves fast and as a blocker that’s hard to match up with. Their setters are tough to read. It helped me get ready for what was to come.

After that wakeup call we faced one of China’s professional teams the next day. We won in three which was a good, confidence building win. The score margin was a lot wider and we were pretty pleased with the result.

In the championship match, we ended up playing the team from the first day and won in four. It was cool to see how far we had come over the span of three days and how we could improve that chemistry as a team that’s been thrown together. Going through the winning ceremony and taking pictures with the trophy was a really rewarding experience because China’s tough. The competition is difficult and it’s a different type of toughness it takes to win there. You may not be down two sets at home, but you’re battling no A/C in the gym, you may not have eaten much, you don’t know how long the bus ride is going to be or the gym is filled with smoke from the crowd watching. It’s just a totally different environment that breeds a different style of toughness by overcoming that adversity.

Getting the start in the final tournament was extremely rewarding. Every team I’ve ever been on it’s been a goal to start. I still remember my first start at UK and on my high school and club teams, so it was another big moment for me. The start was more rewarding having to prove myself. It gave me faith in my game and got my confidence back up. It’s tough to play your game with a group of people you don’t know, so to know the staff trusted me was huge.

My time in China definitely put things in perspective, and it’s something I hope to bring back home. This team – our Kentucky team this year – is definitely going to face some tough times and challenges. I think there’s already some people asking the question “how good is Kentucky actually going to be? Is Kentucky going to be a contender?” Pushing past those voices is going to be a challenge we’re going to have to face. I’m just hoping that my experience overcoming adversity in China is something I can bring back and will translate to the team this year. 

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