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ODU Volleyball Players Making the Grade On and Off the Court

By Harry Minium

Madeline Rudd isn't sure whether she wants to be a doctor or a physician's assistant but is drawn to medicine because of her desire to help people. And she knows whatever path she chooses will require a rigorous undergraduate regimen.

So, when she was sorting through more than half a dozen Division I volleyball scholarship offers two years ago, she looked for a university that excels in STEM-H.

STEM-H stands for science, technology, engineering, math and health sciences, an area in which Old Dominion University has become a national leader.

More than 40% of ODU's 24,233 students major in STEM-H, and the University is the second in the state when it comes to the percentage of STEM-H majors who graduate. ODU either is set to open, constructing or designing nearly $230 million worth of STEM-H facilities, including new chemistry, health sciences and biology buildings.

"I have family in Virginia Beach, and all I heard from everyone I talked to was how much they loved ODU," said Rudd, a redshirt freshman from Apex, North Carolina. "Once I looked up what they had to offer in STEM-H majors, I knew whatever I want to do is here."

She was the first volleyball player to commit to ODU, and many of her teammates have similar stories. Seven of ODU's 14 players are STEM-H majors, including three who major in in biology. They aspire to become biochemists, nurses and engineers.

Three more major in business management or finance while three others are in international studies or political science.

Alessia Sgherza, a graduate student from Italy, is working on a master's degree in exercise science.

Guided by academic adviser Kristin Eden, the volleyball players combined for a 3.72 GPA in the fall semester, by far the best among ODU's athletic teams.

Having all that gray matter in one locker room might help explain why ODU is the surprise of Conference USA volleyball.

ODU's startup program was picked to finish last in the Conference USA East Division. Yet the Monarchs are 7-10 overall and 4-8 in the conference play. They're scheduled to close the season with a non-confernce match against West Virginia on Tuesday.

"ODU has such a great reputation, it excels so much in those areas, that when recruits do their homework, they are drawn to us," coach Fred Chao said.

Watching Chao coach and the Monarchs play in the final minutes of a close match could be a lesson for every team. Chao is composed and low key. His players don't appear anxious or stressed.

Part of that comes from Chao's coaching philosophy.

"We made a conscious decision to be positive," he said. "We didn't want to be punitive. When we make errors in practice, they are welcome because then you can have a teaching point.

"There's no added pressure. It's not like we've trained them to be anxious. We've trained them to be calm."

Rudd said that on occasion, Chao will tell a joke during a late-match timeout.

For instance, late in a match against UNC-Wilmington, Chao said he was "digging" the music in the ODU Volleyball Center and when his team came together, he said: "Let's not be the singer-songwriter out there. Let's be the rock-and-roll group and be aggressive." And it's not unusual for him to walk into practice to the sound of the "Imperial March," the Darth Vader theme from "Star Wars" movies.

Rudd, who grew up playing volleyball and was a four-year starter at Apex High, said the poise with which this team plays something she's never experienced.

When the pressure is on, "it's like a calmness comes over us," she said. "It's weird how it happens.

"We focus on our own jobs because we don't need to focus on anything else. We know our teammates are going to take care of their jobs. We're a very close team."

That togetherness on the court may be in part because of togetherness off the court

Most of the players - who come from Italy, Argentina, Australia, Russia and six American states - live off campus as part of the "bubble" the team has formed during the pandemic. When they aren't practicing or studying, they're together. They also genuinely like each other.

"We love to cook for each other," Rudd said. "That's one of the biggest things we do together.

"And we watch 'The Bachelor' together, too," she added with a laugh.

Though ODU did not qualify for the conference tournament, the solid inaugural season lays a groundwork for the future.

"Our players have developed a culture in which we're pushing limits every day," Chao said. "We're working extremely hard and are playing volleyball the way I think it should be played."

As well as excelling in the classroom.

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