SEATTLE - Last week another round of Jim McLaughlin Volleyball Camps wrapped up in Alaska Airlines Arena, with the exhausted staff setting to work on its final chore, deflating a few hundred volleyballs that would go into storage for the next year. Among those squishing the assortment of volleyballs were Husky alums Kindra Carlson, Lauren Barfield, and Bianca Rowland.
The trio were enjoying their final few days in Seattle together, seeing old teammates, coaches and friends while teaching the sport they loved. But with camps at an end, the three would all soon be making the transition from mentoring back to learning and competing. Carlson, Barfield and Rowland are all heading back to Europe for their second go-round as professional athletes.
While the current Huskies got a taste of life abroad during their recent foreign tour, it’s nothing like the experience of moving one’s whole life to a new continent and immersing oneself in smaller towns away from the tourist hot spots. That’s the way of life for all the top American volleyball players, as the opportunities to make a living playing professionally exist all over the world, with a big exception being here at home. Carlson’s new contract will be taking her to Greece, Barfield is already settling in to Poland, and Rowland is en route to Germany.
Carlson, a 2010 grad and All-American right side hitter, got her first international experience in France during the 2011-12 season. Her Beziers Angels squad (also including another UW grad, Alesha Deesing) had a successful season, taking second to qualify for a European champions-league tourney the following year. Carlson would choose to return to France the next year but move teams, signing to play for Nantes along with her former classmate, Jenna Hagglund.
Unfortunately Carlson soon learned that she had played the entire previous year on a stress fracture in her tibia, which was identified a year ago at the end of the Husky summer camps. Surgery in August has kept Carlson from building on her pro career until now. At the end of August, Carlson will head to Porto Rafti, a port city in Greece, to resume her career with Markopoulo.
“Oh my gosh, I’m stoked. I’m so excited,” said Carlson on the prospect of getting back on the court for live competition. Her contract will run six to eight months depending on if the team advances in the playoffs.
Thinking back on the first year in France and what’s to come, Carlson said, “You don’t know what to expect your first year. You’re just kind of thrown in the fire, and you have to figure it out for yourself. The second year you can ask questions, you know more about coaching, you know more about what you have to do as a player to get better and how you can keep progressing, and you hope for the best!”
Barfield, who formed one of the best middle blocker rotations in the country with Rowland during their senior seasons in 2011, says that adapting to changing coaching philosophies is always a challenge for young foreign players.
“I think that every single college player goes into Europe, especially on their first team which is usually not great, they’ll say everything this team does is wrong, and I learned it this other way,” says Barfield, who spent her first professional season competing in Linz, Austria. “(This year) I think I’m going to try and realize that it’s my job to do what they say, and try and get better in every aspect of my game. Win more, and play better competition. I think that the only way you can get better is play better people. So I expect to have some really tough games, because the Polish league is known for being tough and having really good players.”
Barfield believes she might be the first American player ever on her new Polish squad, and at any rate she is the only one on the roster this year. Rowland says she thinks she’ll be joining one Canadian on her new team in the German city of Suhl, but there are often limits to the number of foreign players that teams are allowed to sign, making the rosters mostly native players to the respective countries. It goes without saying then that English is not always the first language shouted from the sidelines.
“Going from a coach like Jim, who’s very clear on knowing what he’s talking about and helping us learn, to a coach that doesn’t speak any English, and has a whole different system, was really hard at first,” Rowland says. “The first couple months I really struggled with that, trying to adapt to their system, and playing with a whole new group of girls. But then you get used to it after a couple of months and I ended up loving it.”
Another odd adjustment for the players was frequently competing against, or with, high school aged players, who often compete for clubs as high school and collegiate sports in Europe are more limited.
Bridging the gap in experience can be a challenge. “It’s weird because they just have a different work ethic, nothing against them, they just haven’t played as long as we have,” Rowland says. “That was an adjustment you have to make. You have to teach them how to play up to your level, and sometimes you do drop down to their level, so it’s a big mental game trying to keep at the level that you know how to play.”
Heading into their second contracts, all three players were better equipped to ask the right questions of their agents, the people tasked with finding contract offers and matching the players up with the right teams. Both Rowland Barfield wanted to play in stronger leagues overall, and declined several offers before ending up with the ones they wanted. As Barfield put it, “This time I actually had expectations and standards.”
All the cultural experiences that come with living in another new country remain a big draw to Carlson, Barfield, and Rowland.
“If I could do one thing differently this time it’s have a life outside of volleyball,” says Carlson. “Not just go to the gym, go to my apartment, and that’s it. Do as the Greeks do, and learn their culture. What it’s like to live there every day. Obviously learn a little bit of Greek if I can. Enjoy the GreekIslands and enjoy the short eight months that I have there.”
Same goes for Barfield, who says she plans to travel more than she did during her time in Austria.
“I just bought a Polish guidebook. I want to go to Warsaw and Krakow, and go up to Gdansk on the Polish coast. I think I’m going to try and go to different places for Christmas and New Year’s so it should be more fun.”
Rowland will get to share the experience this year with her new fiancée Tyreese Breshers, a former Husky basketball player. The two will live together, and along with exploring their surroundings, Rowland is determined to keep improving on the court.
“I’m hoping that I learn more while I’m there,” she said. “The whole reason I want to go is to become a better volleyball player, because I still think I have room to improve. I want to be better, and play how I did when I was here, because I definitely didn’t do that when I was in Switzerland. I think the coaching staff in Germany will help me do that.”
The three alums are certainly ready for wherever the road leads next.