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Gnarly volleyball and a culture change in Japan

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Maryland volleyball players Jada Gardner and Erika Pritchard took a trip to Japan this summer on the Big Ten Volleyball Foreign Tour Team.

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Last spring, Maryland volleyball head coach Adam Hughes called middle blocker Jada Gardner into his office.

He had some special news to share.

“He told me that I was getting sent on the tour,” Gardner told Testudo Times. “I was super excited. It was a great opportunity to play overseas.”

Gardner had a rough 2018 season, shortened due to injury. She sat out for the majority of the year after a hot start and understandably, she was eager to get back on the court. Now she would have that chance as the Maryland representative for the Big Ten Foreign Tour in Japan.

She wasn’t the only Terp that went with the Big Ten squad, though. When a roster spot opened up later on, Hughes decided 2018 All-Big Ten First Team selection Erika Pritchard deserved a spot on the roster too.

“[The Big Ten] contacted us to see what we wanted to do and I decided she was a really good edition if she wanted to go,” Hughes told Testudo Times. “I wasn't sure if she was interested. But when I told her, she was shocked and surprised, but extremely thankful and grateful for that.”

So, the Terps now had two players traveling to Japan representing the program and the conference on the Big Ten Volleyball Foreign Tour Team from June 14-26. Maryland was the only team that had two representatives on the 12-person roster.

Needless to say, the pair had an unforgettable time, both for the volleyball and for the introduction to new culture.

“Oh my gosh. It was an incredible experience. I’m just so grateful to have been on that team. The group of girls are amazing. The staff was amazing,” Pritchard told Testudo Times. “It was just really cool to experience the culture. The volleyball was gnarly, it was amazing.”

Gardner and Pritchard, along with the rest of the roster, played a selection of semi-professional and professional Japanese teams across the country, from Osaka to Kyoto to Tokyo.

The volleyball was competitive and the matches were tough-fought, but once the competition was over, the team got the opportunity to intermingle with the Japanese players.

“Even though there was a language barrier, there was still that bond of volleyball,” Pritchard said.

For Gardner, it was an opportunity for her to re-gain her volleyball legs after being sidelined for several months. Even now, she’s still trying to get back up to game speed, but the tour definitely helped speed up the process.

“I thought it was a great opportunity for me to play competitively before the season starts,” Gardner said. “I know that being able to play different people before school really helped me, especially since I was out that year.”

Both touched on the very different style of play from the Japanese teams. While they lacked the height of the Big Ten team, as Pritchard explained, they made up for it in other ways.

“We had the physicality aspect, so we were towering over them, but they played very smart and they were very technical and clean,” Pritchard said. “They didn’t make a lot of errors. They were technically sound, so the game was very different. We had to adapt to theirs and it really did make us better.”

Playing with a team made up of players from different places doesn’t make playing together in matches easier. The women needed to gel on the fly, which they did “as soon as we were at the airport,” according to Gardner.

Unsurprisingly, the trip wasn’t just about volleyball. It was also to gain an appreciation for Japanese culture, to open up the minds of the players that went.

From the bustling metropolis of Tokyo to the historic temples of Kyoto, there was plenty of sightseeing to go around. Pritchard even described Tokyo as “New York on steroids,” mentioning the famous Shibuya Crossing.

Along with sightseeing, experiencing a new culture means experiencing new food. There were plenty of new dishes to be sampled, and luckily, both Terps enjoyed Japan’s culinary offerings, especially Gardner.

“I really like the food. It was a lot of rice, a lot of chicken. I was surprised with that, but it was all really good,” Gardner said.

When walking around the country, Pritchard said that it wasn’t that difficult to pick the team out of a crowd. It’s not often that you see a group of six-foot tall volleyball players in one place.

“A lot of them, it was just so obvious, making it seem that we’re really tall,” Pritchard said. “They would look at us and be like, ‘Oh my god!’ It was a big group of us, so we stuck out like a sore thumb.”

It was truly a life-changing experience for both of them, who couldn’t stop talking about how great the team was, how great the opportunity was and how grateful they were to have gotten the opportunity.

Let’s just say that if something like this pops up again, expect them to immediately throw their names into the hat.

As for Maryland, this is only the beginning as the program is in talks of planning their own foreign tour in the future per Hughes, though details have yet to be announced.