When it’s spring quarter finals week, with the end in sight just a few days away, there’s not much else you want to focus on, even as a Stanford student-athlete. So when then-sophomore outside hitter Brittany Howard was working on a final paper on a Sunday night that was due the next day — with another final looming on Tuesday — and she got a missed phone call and a text from head coach John Dunning, she was understandably stressed.
Jordan Burgess was having issues with an injury, Dunning said, so she couldn’t go.
“I literally said, ‘Go where?’ He said, ‘China,’” Howard said.
There was not much time to think — there was documentation to be sent in, training to attend — but Howard was in the middle of finals with things to do piling up left and right. But after talking to her parents and checking her summer plans, she committed to going to China as part of the Pac-12 Women’s Volleyball All-Star Team. But no emails about it until Tuesday — there was a final to be taken, after all.
“Immediately after that, I just felt super overwhelmed and I called Kyle Gilbert on our team, crying,” Howard said.
But Howard made it through her finals week just fine, and before they knew it, she and teammate Madi Bugg, who had known for a while that she was going as a setter, were on flights first to Los Angeles for practices, and then across the Pacific Ocean to China.
Bugg and Howard were two of 12 Pac-12 All-Stars selected to represent the conference against Chinese teams, mixed in with players from every Pac-12 school except for Oregon State. It was a big adjustment to make both on the field and personally — the other players were opponents on rival teams during the regular season — but the girls got over the unfamiliarity pretty quickly.
“You get to know each other real fast in that situation,” Howard said.
“You see each other at your worst, right off the bat,” Bugg added. “We calculated — 39 hours was our travel time until we were in the hotel. That’s pretty desperate.”
While it was nice for Bugg and Howard to have each other on the trip — Stanford was the only school with multiple representatives on the All-Star team — they found it easy to connect with all of the other personalities on the team and were tremendously close on a personal level by the end of the trip. Not only did their personalities mesh well, but they also had a lot of fun comparing their training drills, workouts and team personalities in their down time and using them as a bonding point.
Even though they eventually had to part ways at the end of the trip, the week and a half together in China will definitely make future games between Stanford and its conference opponents much more interesting for Bugg and Howard.
“Melanie [Wade from Washington] has already said, ‘I’m not looking at you during the game. I will not look at you. I won’t say hi,’” Bugg said with a smile. “I talk to Penina [Snuka of Arizona] all the time. I think it’ll be nice to go out after the game and talk to them.”
Even with all of the socializing, friend-making and sightseeing going on in their spare time, there was plenty of time for volleyball as well. Under Oregon head coach Jim Moore, the team often found it difficult to shake a lot of the little program nuances that each of the players had developed in different systems. That, along with the fact that Oregon ran a faster-paced offense that Bugg was fond of but some of the players had trouble adjusting to at the start, made it an interesting time for the all-stars on the court.
“Jim [Moore] and [assistant coach] Stacy [Metro] were really good about saying, ‘We’re not trying to coach you. We’re not trying to change your techniques,’” Howard said. “It was more about, let’s get comfortable, let’s put together lineups that work and win matches.”
It was a tough touring circuit for the All-Stars, as they not only had to adjust to the time difference and overcome sicknesses due to the different food and water in the country, but also had to play teams that had been training together for much longer than they had in the home country of those teams.
But they were able to overcome those challenges and finish their trip with a 4-3 overall record to leave China happy with their play. Bugg and Howard remembered being exhausted by how every match seemed to stretch to five sets — five of their seven did, as a matter of fact — but thought it was a unique, valuable experience nonetheless.
And part of what made the experience more interesting — in both a good way and a bad way — was the vast difference in the cultures and lifestyles between China and the United States that was clearly evident to both Bugg and Howard on their trip.
For one, they were astonished to find that the toilets were just holes in the ground and that they were required to bring their own tissues or toilet paper into the stalls — and if they didn’t, the language barrier made it difficult to negotiate with people that might be able to provide those utilities. Another difference was in how the local citizens all wanted to take pictures with her and openly treated them with enthusiasm at every turn.
“They were fascinated by us,” Bugg said. “They didn’t think it was rude to just come up behind you and take pictures. I actually think I kind of understand paparazzi a little bit now…It was really cool for the games, just seeing how excited everyone was to see you. That part was really cool.”
Although each day was jam-packed with activities — they played seven matches in 10 days and still went on sightseeing tours of the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, the Silk Market and Tiananmen Square — that left them exhausted at nights, Bugg and Howard would not have had it any other way. After all, how many times do you ever get to go to China with a set of strangers-turned-close friends and have an experience like this?
But when they came home, they gladly welcomed some of the simpler things in life that Americans take for granted — toilet paper, a blue sky, fresh produce.
“In China, they cook everything, so there was no fresh spinach or anything where we were,” Bugg said. “I don’t like vegetables, but I came back and I was like, ‘I want crunchy vegetables. So badly.’”
“It really just put everything in a really good perspective,” Howard added.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.