They played elite high school volleyball teams half a world away, toured historic Vienna and navigated the canals of Venice.
But what Canyon Crest Academy volleyball standout Hannah Martin remembers most about her team’s trip to Europe last month were the dinners.
It was during those moments in Martin’s view that she and her Ravens teammates established relationships that wouldn’t have occurred had they not been plucked from their comfort zone.
“If you’re on a high school team you might have a banquet or you might have a couple of team lunches,” Martin said.
But that’s it.
The Ravens competed in a tournament in Slovenia, and hop scotched across Europe for the rest of their 11-day trip. They had team dinners with opposing teams during the tournament before traveling to Austria and Italy.
The team sent all 14 varsity players on the program’s third trip to Europe (they also visited Europe in 2008 and 2012).
“It’s honestly kind of eye-opening because a lot of times we like to go to where we’re comfortable,” Martin said. “We like to hang out with our best friends because it’s easy and it’s what we know, but if you spend that much time with people at dinners you’re going to be sitting with everyone and getting to know everyone, so that to me was priceless and really valuable to our team as a bonding experience.”
The volleyball tournament was held in Maribor, Slovenia’s second largest city with a population of about 100,000.
Ravens co-head coach Rachel Morris traveled with the team. Co-head coach Ariel Haas, who was heavily involved in organizing the trip, remained in San Diego for the birth of his family’s baby.
“Volleyball is a team sport, and especially with young women it’s super important to have a team dynamic,” Morris said.”If you trust each other on the court then you’re going to be more successful when you’re playing with one another.”
The Ravens had gone through tryouts but hadn’t practiced ahead of the tournament. They took their lumps early on in the tournament playing teams who play year-round (European high school players don’t split their time between their clubs and school teams as they do in the United States), but won their tournament finale on the last day.
The trip wasn’t a pleasure cruise.
The Ravens traveled more than 6,000 miles to be “comfortable being uncomfortable,” Morris said, noting that the trip reflects the program’s philosophy of fostering emotional growth, maturity and comraderie that can only be achieved by taking their players out of their comfort zones.
“We want them to be uncomfortable together and we want them to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Morris said. “That’s something that we’ve preached every season that I’ve coached at Canyon Crest (Academy). Being in a foreign country and playing a team that you don’t know in a different time zone with a different ball and a different environment is a way to get these girls to be uncomfortable, and if they can succeed in an uncomfortable environment, which they did, when they come home and they are in their own element they should be able to be more comfortable.”
There were some awkward moments, as some teenagers away from home for the first time, immersed in a foreign land and had to lean on their wits and each other, confronting language and cultural barriers.
“We learned a lot from just being at cafes,” Martin said. “You realize everybody’s just sitting there, enjoying their moment being there, whereas a lot of times in America we’re like ‘OK, grab a cup of coffee from Starbucks to go,’ then we get on our phones, rushing to this place and that.
“In Europe we have to be like, just sit at the cafe and talk to the people around you - not on your phone.”
Martin believes that facing cultural barriers has prepared her team to face the uncomfortable qualities of volleyball, a game of mistakes and frantic momentum swings that can strain team unity when things don’t go well.
“When you’re down, or when some players are making errors, or when you’re struggling on the court it’s uncomfortable,” Martin said. “When you’re submerged into a new culture together you’re uncomfortable together and kind of figuring it out together, just like you would be on the court.”
The Ravens emerged from the trip a more united team with “sister-like” bonds.
“That sisterly bond is more honest,” Martin said. “Straight up, we can tell each other anything. We have a lot of trust, rather than like saying ‘Oh it’s OK,” we’re going to hold each other accountable and work hard together and not beat around the bush.”
The Ravens are preparing to compete with some of the most formidable programs in the state. They concluded last season ranked 20th in the state by MaxPreps.
There will be a time to confront those challenges.
But Haas said this trip was more about the human experience than the volleyball experience.
“Life is about creating a story, and going through various experiences and being able to use volleyball as a medium to experience different cultures and other ways of doing things is a great opportunity,” Haas said. “It’s really just a learning experience and creating memories that they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives, and (building) relationships with their own teammates that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to do otherwise.”