Erin Appleman is aching to watch her daughter play in person this season.
“I’m like, ‘I can ref. I can do lots of stuff. I can do the lines. I can do the book,’” the Yale women’s volleyball coach said. “I’m trying every way, but it’s not working.”
Oh, those COVID-19 rules and regulations.
Although Emma Appleman must wear a mask to compete this fall, there is no hiding the fact that the Guilford senior and daughter of two college coaches is recognized by many as the best girls’ high school volleyball player in Connecticut.
“Emma knows the game better than anyone I’ve seen,” Guilford coach Laura Anastasio said. “What’s really interesting is she’s going to play in college as a setter. She was SCC Player of the Year and first-team All-State last year as a (outside) hitter for us. It’s not even her main position.”
With her academic interests leaning toward environmental science and biology, Emma will play volleyball and beach volleyball at the College of Charleston. For now, she must be content to play a 12-game schedule against five nearby opponents with a modest “tournament experience” to follow.
As a truncated CIAC fall season starts Thursday — ultimately with girls’ volleyball and without 11-on-11 football — all sorts of storylines accompany the opening of seven sports. Add in the continuing COVID issues and financial troubles facing college athletics and we submit no storyline is any more fascinating than the Appelmans’. They encapsulate 2020 sports in Connecticut.
Christian Appleman, hired a year ago as UConn men’s associate head tennis coach after 14 years as a Yale assistant, is seeing his job phased out after the school announced the elimination of four sports in June.
“I have no bitterness,” Christian said. “(Athletic Director) Mr. (David) Benedict and the school did what they had to do. I understand … Tennis has always been on the fringes of being cut, threatening to be cut. That’s part of the deal.
“Hopefully, we have a spring season to finish off the program the right way. I’ll do what I can to move on and see what’s next. Colleges are in a holding pattern.”
So too were high schools in Connecticut. While much was made of the wildly emotional story of football, largely ignored was girls’ volleyball, which went through a similar situation.
“It was stressful,” Emma said. “I’m someone who is really into planning and knowing what’s going on. Tell me if we’re going to play or not. It was back and forth emotionally for the team.”
Volleyball ultimately was approved for play after wearing masks became one of the conditions for lowering risks.
The Ivy League canceled fall sports. No volleyball in 2020 at Yale, although the team continues to work out and there is talk the NCAA may put together something for the spring.
“When we found out the news, I’ll be honest with you, it was heartbreaking,” said Erin, who was a senior captain at San Diego State and met her husband when she was an assistant coach at Penn State. “I’ve been involved in the sport for 40 years. I do think it was the right choice. I’m proud of Yale and the Ivy League. They were really looking out for all, students, student-athletes and coaches.”
Erin, 314-117, has built an Ivy League powerhouse over 17 years. Ten league titles, seven NCAA Tournament appearances, first Ivy League coach to win an NCAA Tournament match, willing to take on the big-name schools. Her credentials are set. The personal schedule of a college coach never is.
“Emma usually plays in the evening, so I could make some of the games — not as many as I’d like,” Erin said. “This year, with us not playing games, I would love to watch all her games, but …”
Let Erin ref? Do the scorebook? Sweep the gym?
“I’m like, ‘Every parent is going to want to do that,’” Anastasio said. “Erin comes to as many as she can, and this is the silly year she could come to all of them — and unfortunately can’t.”
Guilford, which opens Thursday at Whitney Tech, is not allowing fans into the gym for matches. Among road opponents, Anastasio said, East Haven is allowing two fans per athlete. Guilford also is trying to hook up its Hudl account to livestream games.
Christian and Erin did not rush Emma into volleyball. Yes, she grew up around the game with her mom. She grew up around tennis, basketball, soccer, lacrosse and track, too. Christian recalls taking along Emma in the van to tennis matches at Dartmouth and other Ivy stops.
In middle school he coached her in travel basketball and saw her unselfishness, team-oriented instincts and vision develop. Emma broke her right wrist and immediately went to work on her left-hand shot and dribble. He saw dedication, too.
“As a dad, you just let it evolve,” Christian said. “She had a little something special. She was really good at soccer and we thought lacrosse was her go-to sport. It was fun to see where it might go. There was never talk of college scholarships or directing her to one sport.”
It was in the seventh grade when Emma joined a local once-a-week club volleyball team.
“I do think volleyball is a tougher sport for young kids,” Erin said. “Soccer and basketball, I think, can be played a little bit better when you’re younger. When she started practicing volleyball on her own is when we knew that was going to be the sport she loved.
“We have a hoop in the backyard. We had soccer goals. We had all these sports things. She’d just take the volleyball and play by herself. And she loved the social aspect, the celebration of the sport.”
The way players celebrate a point won or rally after a point loss — this is one of the things that drew Emma in.
“I see volleyball as the ultimate team sport,” she said. “You need everyone to have all touches. You can’t count on one player to carry the team. I love that connection with my teammates.”
Anastasio said the Guilford girls took to calling her “the mitochondria” last season. We told you she was into biology.
“The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell,” Anastasio said. “Emma’s a powerhouse. She works harder. She hits it harder. She knows more. She gets everyone pumped in a positive way. She is the leader of the pack.”
Appleman and the Guilford girls badly wanted the state title in 2020.
“I know a lot of the girls are upset not being able to go for a state championship, although no one’s actually saying it,” Anastasio said. “It has been the elephant in the room.”
So they are talking goals this week: Go undefeated. Get a top seed for whatever tournament experience. In COVID 2020, it’s something.
“I want everyone to go out and have fun,” Emma said. “but I really want us to improve and see how far our talent and hard work will take us.”
If that sounds like a coach, well, she has been sitting around the dinner table since she was little listening to Mom and Dad. Christian played tennis and basketball four years at Penn State. He even served as a punter in spring football after John Bruno, the punter for the 1986 national champions, was diagnosed with cancer. Christian punted three times in the Blue-White game and helped out as a backup quarterback before Joe Paterno sent him back to basketball. Besides coaching tennis, he has been a men’s and women’s assistant basketball coach at Penn State, Army and Yale.
“She has seen matches and practices since she was 3 or 4,” Christian said. “She has seen preparation and high-level athletes deal with success and failure. Our dinner conversations are always about what makes players tick. Her mom is an amazing coach. Emma has watched her coaching games, practices, seeing what makes teams good. Not a lot of kids are exposed to that.”
“My parents have enabled me to see situations from a coaching standpoint,” Emma said. “What they want and don’t want from players, how to handle team issues.”
The coaches, the team culture, doubling up with beach volleyball, warm weather, wanting to go farther away than New Haven yet still feeling like home … they all factored into choosing the College of Charleston. Erin said she tried recruiting Emma — “Trust me.” Emma said she would have had to take a gap year to match up with the Yale coach’s recruiting algorithm. And as far as being the mom of a Guilford player?
“I know my mom’s really upset,” Emma said. “She wants to see me my senior year to see how I’ve grown. It’s like, ‘I’ll do anything. Please, please. Just let me watch.’”
COVID. The Applemans. They are sports in Connecticut in 2020.
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