For the first time in the program’s history, Women’s Varsity Volleyball captured the number one ranking in Washington, DC. In this article, head coach Brandon Wiest helps put this ranking, and the team’s success, in context. Also catch up with the three senior captains in their interview below.
UPDATE, 10/15/2021: GDS is also one of 100 teams named in the American Volleyball Coaches Association's recently released rankings and published by USA Today. Women's Varsity Volleyball is listed in the top ten among all teams in Region Two, the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes the DMV plus Pennsylvania and New Jersey! Check the rankings >>
This year’s team, Brandon explained, is the product of strong senior leadership. The seven seniors on the team have all been involved in high-level volleyball for several years. Down on the court, there are no gaps in strength across the floor, no holes that present an opportunity for the opposing team.
“The offense is more well-rounded than it has ever been,” Brandon said. “When they pass to our setter, Claire, any hitter has a good chance of getting a kill.” Other teams tend to have one or two strong hitters that you can predict will get the set, but with this GDS team, it could be any one of the offensive team members striking for a kill.
Many of these seniors are either lifers or have been at GDS from at least Middle School. They learned ball handling in Lower School and then played on Peg Schultz’s Middle School team. In the time the seniors have been at the High School they have built the kind of program and culture they wanted for themselves. It’s not hyperbole to say they’ve been working towards this a long time.
Recently though, their strength as a team has truly been tested. Not by an opposing team, but rather by the fallout of the pandemic on High School athletics across the city. Still, even in the face of the pandemic, they rose to the challenge like few other teams have been able to do.
“Through the summer of 2020,” Brandon said, “I was really proud of the team for their intense off-season training program, five days per week, including high-intensity interval training on their own, video reviews, and ball control challenges. They each spent an hour a day focused on volleyball.”
Then the athletics leagues canceled the fall season of 2020. Sophomore Aaliyah Howell, then a freshman in her first year at GDS, lost her debut season with Women’s Varsity Volleyball. Still, even as the season was lost, the team kept up that intense training for six more weeks, Brandon said. Their hard work kept the team gelled, brought along one of the most talented groups of underclassmen they’ve ever had into the program, and allowed them all to hit the ground running again during preseason 2021.
This season so far, they’ve put on a show with 3-0 straight sets wins. including an extraordinary high-pressure comeback last week reminiscent of the 2017 program’s game-point deficit comeback to win the A Division banner.
The players understand the history of the program and the legacy they are each a part of, Brandon said. “We have a larger varsity team this year with the intention of the leadership passing down the culture to the younger group,” he said. “The team might not get better every single year, but I want them to look back as seniors after four years, to see that the program has grown. This is a great group of seniors, giving the current freshmen a big challenge.”
Given that the team has tended to play best against stronger teams, Head Coach Brandon Wiest is looking forward to the tough match-ups next up on the docket. On Thursday, GDS faces Northern Virginia school Flint Hill, the undisputed “big dog in the area.” Brandon said, “I’m excited for that. It was fun to put away the less competitive teams early in the season, but I would prefer a good fight and a competitive match.”
Interview with the team captains!
You're number one! Tell us how that's feeling...
CLAIRE: It is feeling AMAZING!!!
PALLAVI: I’m feeling grateful and motivated. The teammates and coaches are some of the most dedicated people I know, and I think the difference for us this year has really been how much extra effort we all have put into the program.
LIZZIE: Brandon has put so much work into this program since he's been coach, and we have all happily put in the extra hours to become better teammates and athletes.
CLAIRE: We have been working for this moment since we were freshmen, and now we know that we are going out with a bang!
PALLAVI: The volleyball team works so hard around the year to foster a positive yet competitive and hardworking environment—summer practices, off-season practices, a three-month home workout plan during lockdown, hosting camps for new players—you name it, we’ve done it. Everyone genuinely wants to be there and is willing to invest their time in each other. It’s really gratifying and inspiring to see that everyone’s hard work is paying off!
Help the community understand historically what this means for the volleyball program and GDS.
PALLAVI: GDS historically had the reputation among kids as a smart school but not a sporty school. To be able to definitively have a ranking that proves that we can be both is not only empowering but also really fun.
LIZZIE: GDS, and especially the volleyball team, is finally proving how good we are at sports. The programs have been developing in recent years and although academics are always the priority (as we stress), sports are on the come up at the school.
CLAIRE: I know that it’s my last year in this program, so for me, it’s the end. But for GDS volleyball in general, I truly believe that this year is the beginning of a long streak of dominance in the ISL. I know that Brandon is going to keep working hard on recruitment and practice planning, and I believe that the seniors have done a really good job passing down the torch to the freshmen. Despite the fact that GDS has been seen as a purely academic school with weak athletics, our team, and many other GDS teams, have proven that this is not the case. GDS has seen the highest number of athletic college commitments in the past few years, sent many athletes to all-star games, and had some very solid records in different sports across the ISL.
Thinking back to your time as freshmen, what did you learn from the seniors then and how have you put that into action as leaders of your team now?
LIZZIE: The seniors when I was a freshman always put emphasis on team bonding, which we have valued over the years. We always say it's the most important because although we're all great volleyball players, individually, that would mean nothing if we had no chemistry on the court. Team bonding has allowed us to have great relationships with each other on and off the court and with the alumni who we're still close with.
CLAIRE: I think the most important thing that we learned from the seniors was how to foster a strong team culture. When I was a freshman, the seniors were super welcoming and always made us feel comfortable being on the team. Now, as senior captains, we are trying to make the team a positive environment so that the freshmen love GDS volleyball as much as we do, and we can feel confident that they will take good care of the program once we’re gone.
Something else you wished we had asked?
CLAIRE: How could the GDS community further support its athletics teams? The answer: COME TO OUR GAMES!!!! We appreciate our fan section so much, and some positivity from the bleachers helps pick up our energy during tough games!
PALLAVI: The school community has really rallied around sports as a whole in the past few years. Seeing support from across the school as we continue on with a historic season, as well as giving that same support to other teams, makes us all just really excited and happy to be here.
On Thursday, GDS plays away at Flint Hill at 5:30 p.m., but on Tuesday, October 19, GDS faces Sidwell Friends at home at 5:30 p.m. Students can cheer on the team from inside the LMS gym, while parents have a great view over the court from our garage viewing gallery.
UPDATE (10/20/2021): Women's Varsity Volleyball crushed Sidwell Friends in three straight sets, 25-13, 25-15, 25-19.
GDS Women’s Varsity Volleyball Roster
Head Coach Brandon Wiest
Assistant Coaches Omar Visurraga and Gabbie Veseli
Jada Aksu ’25
Deepa Bhargava ’23
Pallavi Bhargava ’22
Claire Cooper ’22
Isadora Evers ’23
Nadia Fairfax ’22
Alexa Gillespie ’25
Emma Gillespie ’22
Liz Higday ’25
Aaliyah Howell ’24
Katelyn Oliwa ’23
Isa Rene ’22
Lizzie Rosenman ’22
Zoe Ryu ’25
Bella Young-Dismuke ’22
Team manager Drew Cowan ’23