Heading into the 2018-19 Volleyball Bundesliga, the Berlin Recycling Volleys generated a lot of hype and high expectations.
Kaweh Niroomand, the president of the reigning German league champion, opened the club’s wallet to bring in a number of new players in hopes of launching the team to not only its 10th German league title, but a return to the CEV Champions League Final Four after finishing a disappointing eighth last year.
Only six players from last season’s roster returned, including American opposite Kyle Russell. Niroomand and head coach Stelian Moculescu brought in a group of nine newcomers that included Team USA players Dustin Watten (libero), Ben Patch (opposite), and Jeff Jendryk (middle blocker).
And yet, even with a roster dripping with talent, the Volleys have yet to find the success they have been searching for. Berlin is 10-4 in the Bundesliga, which puts it in fourth place, and 1-2 in CEV Champions League, suffering both losses in straight sets and thus sitting at the bottom of the Pool D table with three points.
“To be honest, we just really haven’t played good volleyball this year. It’s like we either win 3-0 because the German league is like pretty weak or we lose 0-3,” libero Watten said in a phone interview the day after Berlin’s demoralizing 0-3 loss to PGE Skra Belchatow in Champions League on Jan. 16.
“I think this is like the most money this team has spent on a team because pretty much everyone from last year left, except like one starter, and the president likes to do things big, so he was like, ‘Well, it’s going to be tough but I’m just going to buy a huge team,’” Watten continued. “So there’s been like a lot of hype, and other German coaches say things like, ‘They’re going to destroy the league.’”
AUSWÄRTSSIEG! pic.twitter.com/52uCE4s7hh— BR Volleys (@BRVolleys) January 26, 2019
Luckily the 32-year-old libero from Long Beach, California, has been around the professional volleyball block a few times and has learned not to let the ups and downs on the court dictate his life and happiness. And having three fellow Americans on the team doesn't hurt either.
“When you’re overseas, you’re usually in a small town, if not like a village, and unless you’re incredibly mature, all there is is just volleyball,” Watten said. “It’s like black and white. At the end of the week, it’s like, you either succeeded or you didn’t.”
Before coming to Berlin last fall, Watten spent two seasons in Poland. Unlike Berlin, few people he interacted with in Poland spoke English, and it was hard to build meaningful connections. Even after great matches or in the midst of a winning streak, he’d leave the gym basking in the glow of victory only to return home and have to face an empty, silent apartment.
This year, though, with four Americans on the team and the bustling international city of Berlin just outside his front door, there are plenty of people to connect with, vent to and grab a bite to eat with.
“If you’re just by yourself, you have a tough practice, you have a tough week, you’re having a tough month, you’re having a tough relationship with a coach, you’re by yourself, you’re just bottling that up,” Watten said. “And it’s just really not healthy. But when you have an American [on your team] just to be able to vent, get stuff out of your thoughts, to go have lunch, to go have sushi, to cook a meal together. It’s just great to separate from volleyball.”
Watten and Patch, a BYU grad in his second season playing professionally overseas, room together when the team travels to away matches.
“[Ben] has to be one of the best listeners in the world,” said Watten. “He’s just such a sincere, genuine, loving and compassionate guy. If there’s anything on my mind or things I’m dealing with, he will listen to me, and I’m just so grateful to have his opinion on things.”
Former UC Irvine Anteater Russell, who has been Berlin’s top scorer in CEV matches so far and is known by his German team and the local fans as Mr. Muscle, is the guy to go to when you need a workout buddy or someone to lighten the mood with a goofy joke.
“Another genuine guy who just wants to work hard and wants to improve each day, and I really resonate with that,” Watten said.
The fourth American on the roster, Jendryk, signed his first professional contract with the Volleys. Although only 23 years old, Jendryk has already spent two full summers with the U.S. men’s national team, competing in the 2017 World League, 2018 Volleyball Nations League and 2018 World Championships.
“And then there is Jeff, who immediately once he stepped on the national team, I just really got along with,” Watten continued. “Another guy [with] just not a malicious bone in his body. I don’t think I have really ever heard him complain about anything or say something about someone else. He’s just such a great guy, loves to laugh and I probably hang out with him the most because he’ll come over, we’ll cook food and we’ll watch like a movie together.”
Jendryk, Patch and Watten came to Berlin having played together at the 2018 FIVB World Championships where Team USA took home bronze and no doubt the ups and downs of that experience brought them closer.
The U.S. men lost just one match in pool play at Worlds, but then fell to eventual champ Poland in a heart-breaking five-set semifinal in which the Americans had a 2-1 lead heading into the fourth set. The next night, they beat Serbia in the third-place match to take home their second bronze medal of the summer, having finished third at VNL as well.
“I think everyone was really proud on how we were able to reset after losing to Poland, because I think that was the hardest thing. A lot of older guys realized that that might have been their last chance to win a gold medal at World Championships,” Watten said.
The goal heading into World Champs, Watten continued, was to beat Russia, which won VNL earlier in the summer and swept the USA twice on its way to victory. At World Champs, not only did Team USA beat Russia, they did it twice, but the loss to Poland still stings.
“We felt that we had the possibility to go gold-gold in the summer and going bronze-bronze, I think it was just emotionally draining, but more so left a bitter taste,” Watten said. “I truly believe it will be for the best in how all the guys right now are taking their day-to-day and how hard they’re working and the mindfulness they’re working with, not only waiting for the summer but doing it now.”
And while American volleyball fans certainly hope that type of focus and dedication in the professional season pays off for Team USA come summer and Olympic qualification, it may also pay dividends for the Berlin Recycling Volleys in the second half of their season.
With 14 Bundesliga matches under their belts, the Volleys are about two thirds of the way through the regular season. In Champions League, three matches remain in the fourth round, including a rematch with Skra. Berlin will need to achieve a new level of excellence if it has a chance of being one of the top eight teams in the group stage and advancing to the quarterfinals.
“Everyone has been asking us all year what we need to do better, and I think everyone can just step up their own accountability and I think when we do this, and I think we are doing it right now, we will be able to realize how great we actually can be,” Watten said. “We have such great players, such great coaches, and the management here is so amazing that everything is in place for us to succeed. We just have to do it as individuals and take the responsibility. I think that’s just day-to-day training and just being hungry.”
Watten, Russell, Patch and Jendryk and the rest of the Berlin Recycling Volleys squad will get their first opportunity to turn things around tomorrow in their CEV Champions League home matchup against Trefl Gdansk.