Cultures from near and far mesh on court for the Dickinson State volleyball team
Dickinson State University setter Katelynn Stiefel crunched her face when she set the ball to Nancy Nyongesa during a Wednesday afternoon practice.
It wasn't the perfect pass, but Stiefel made it work. The junior has weathered many preseason storms at Scott Gymnasium. She knows it's only a matter of time before the Blue Hawks blend together like chocolate and ice cream.
DSU head coach Dave Moody shook his head as he watched his team run through offensive drills. But Moody knows it's only a matter of time before his team sees better days.
Working through the preseason kinks can be frustrating at times for the coaches and players. But for the most part it's one of the exciting parts of the season for the DSU volleyball team.
"It's the most important time of your season," said Stiefel, who prepped at Dickinson High and Beulah. "You have new players coming in. That's when you get to know how that player is on the court and how they are off the court."
Each fall the Hawks are Moody's special project. This year's group has brought both challenges and rewards. Moody's team consists of players from four states and five foreign countries.
The cultural diversity that Moody has pursued in recent years continues to be very evident on the court. Chatter is full of different dialect that pretty much covers the whole globe - Spanish, French, Kenyan and English.
"We get to know each other off the court is key and I think that is a key more so for women than men," Moody said. "You have to network socially. What you do off the court is just as important as what you do on the court."
Strangers in a strange land
It's Moody's job to bring the different cultures and backgrounds together on a 30-by-60 foot court in a sport where team unity can make or break a season.
International students have been a key factor in Moody's success as a coach. So far, Moody has been successful in blending foreign athletes with Americans.
DSU has won 11 straight Dakota Athletic Conference titles. His team is ranked No. 8 in the 2006 NAIA preseason poll.
"The common thread of course is volleyball," Moody said. "Beyond that we all have a mother and father. Some of us are single children. Some of us have brothers and sisters. We all have the same kinds of needs and wants. For the most part, they are in a new country or far away from home."
Moody arranged preseason get-togethers, such as trips to Medora, to help strangers become family. He also mixes up workout partners in practice to help along interaction.
"The volleyball team is a group dynamic," Moody said. "We (Moody and his wife Kaye) place ourselves in the role of surrogate parents at times. If we are not going to look out for them, who is?"
Moody also has to convince athletes to choose Dickinson - a city of less than 16,000 people - as their new home.
"We're right in between New York and L.A.," Moody said. "We're in the Banana Belt of North Dakota. We play at a high enough level so that's attractive to good players. You can get a degree from a United States institution of higher learning and it's a safe place."
Elizabeth Castillo, an outside hitter, hails from Lima, Peru - a city of more than 8 million people. Parts of the city are filled with crime. Castillo battles each day to become fluent with the English language. She played at college in Miami last season.
"I choose this team because they speak only English," Castillo said. "In Miami my team spoke Spanish and English. I prefer to speak English because I am learning. We have different signs on the court. You don't need to speak much to understand other people."
Sylvia Vigier, a setter, comes from a suburb of Paris, France. She carries around a notepad and writes down English words she intends to learn.
"I told her she was setting the ball too tight," Stiefel said. "She said 'Tight? How do you spell it? What does it mean?'"
In Vigier's culture, it's proper to greet people with a kiss. Now, she's learning the American way - giving hugs. She's also aware of America's weariness toward the French.
"When you are very far away from home you don't really know what is going on in your country," she said. "You can read papers but you know sometimes it's not the real thing. Sometimes the USA papers critique France and that's hard for me."
NAIA All-American Nyongesa returns for her junior season. She still speaks with a heavy accent but has learned to communicate with her teammates and coaches better. The Kenyan is probably still trying to adjust to the North Dakota winters and Dickinson's remote location.
Local products Stiefel, Kelsey Aide of Bottineau and Mattie Murphy of Ovando, Mont., are probably considered the country bumpkins of the group. Murphy comes from a town of 71 people.
Stiefel, Aide and Murphy are probably known in their hometown's coffee shops where high school sports served as a backbone to their respective communities.
"I really enjoy learning new things from different countries and different people," said Stiefel, who will be roomies with Nyongesa this school year. "At first it's hard to get used to them but you get used to their accent. Mostly you learn different personalities from each country."
Across the water
Recruiting international players isn't one quick and easy step for Moody. He must go through a waiting period, which is set by each country, before he can visit with players. A coach can wait 40 days to talk to a Brazilian player as opposed to a week to talk to an athlete from France. Moody has worked with the U.S. Embassy to bring international players to Dickinson.
There's the red tape of filling out paper work and working through school transcripts.
Moody said it's easier to land a foreign player than an athlete east of the Missouri River.
"We hit pay dirt with the international students," Moody said, "and then trying to (mix) in a talent pool with area kids who can make a difference, too. We've never had (complaints) and it's just because we're winning matches. People in the coffee clutches do know we ask area kids and we do intend to make the effort to recruit.
"I get something out of this," Moody said. "We're part of the creation of an opportunity for kids that we talk to that have the dream of coming over here. It's fulfilling as a coach to see kids graduate and do something with their lives."
It's also a pretty site for Moody to see a group of diversified players wearing the blue and white mesh into a team.