The artificial crowd noise in an empty gym was weird. But that was OK.
The mandatory masks sometimes made it hard to breathe. But that was OK.
It was OK for Zoe McBride because, for the first time in 14 months, she was playing the sport she loves.
With a new school, a new team and a reinforced love for volleyball, the former Prairie High School star relished her first match with Portland State last Sunday.
“It was so fun just to have that competitive environment,” said McBride, a junior outside hitter. “It was so much better than practice and we haven’t even been able to practice that much. We only had four or five times together before that match.”
Even before COVID-19 upended college sports, this season promised to be a memorable one for McBride.
After a standout career at Prairie, the 3A state player of the year had notched two excellent seasons at Morgan State in Baltimore, Maryland.
But despite being named the 2019 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference co-MVP and leading Morgan State to the conference title match, McBride needed a change.
“I was not happy anymore,” McBride said. “I was not myself. It was nothing against Morgan State. I just had to make the decision that was best for me.”
McBride said she is still close with players and coaches at Morgan State, where as a sophomore she led the MEAC in kills per set (4.89), attacks per set (12.88) and points per set (5.47). She also ranked eighth nationally in kills per set.
“I felt really bad leaving,” McBride said. “I felt guilty because we had done so well. But I talked to my parents and this was the best decision personally. I can’t have guilt be the reason to stay someplace where I’m not happy.”
Portland State, of course, was happy to have McBride.
“Zoe is a natural playmaker and has proven that she is a dependable six-rotation outside hitter,” Portland State coach Michael Seemann told GoViks.com when McBride’s transfer was announced in January 2020. “Her collegiate playing experience will benefit our program immensely. She is a proven outside hitter who can play the whole game very well. She has a stable, consistent court presence, and has the play-making ability to influence matches.”
McBride had a connection to Portland State long before her collegiate career. Her father, Tim McBride, played football for the Vikings from 1981-83.
And it was her father who encouraged her to not delay her move to Portland last winter.
“People win spots during the offseason,” McBride said. “I needed to learn a new system and a new school.”
Little did she or anybody else know how disruptive 2020 would be. McBride is glad she moved to Portland before the PSU campus and athletic facilities shut down in the spring due to COVID-19 restrictions.
But for someone who loves having a schedule and routine as much as McBride, the pause in formal training and the pivot to remote learning were difficult.
“I had so much free time,” she said. “I’m not used to that, having played sports my whole life.”
McBride took the initiative, crafting a strict structure around her day-to-day life.
“I started creating schedules for myself,” she said. “I made a meal plan because I thrive on structure and accomplishing certain things during the day.”
Pre-COVID, much of McBride’s schedule and structure revolved around volleyball. With the Big Sky Conference delaying its volleyball season until January, fall of 2020 was the first season in years McBride didn’t play.
Portland’s indoor athletic facilities also weren’t accessible during the fall. McBride did outdoor workouts to stay in shape, but it was difficult to stay sharp in a sport that involves as much precision as volleyball.
“That first practice was insane,” she said. “All the things you take for granted, like passing and basic volleyball things, they weren’t very sharp. Nobody could jump as high.”
But that didn’t stop Portland State giving its all during a season-opening two-match series against Idaho last Sunday and Monday.
The Vikings won the opener in five sets, rallying from a 2-1 deficit. Idaho won the second match in five sets, but not before Portland State nearly rallied from an 2-0 hole. McBride had 13 kills and 24 digs over those two matches.
McBride loves the potential of this year’s young Vikings team, which has just one senior and eight underclassmen.
“I think about my freshman year and how much I improved,” McBride said. “I see that with so many players on this team.”
McBride is ready to be a team leader this season, which will see the Vikings play 18 matches against only Big Sky competition before the conference tournament March 31-April 2.
And while she loves having competitive volleyball back, McBride can’t wait until college sports fully return, fans and all.
“I miss going to other sporting events and supporting the other teams,” she said. “The men’s basketball team is playing and I’m sitting in my apartment three blocks away watching on TV. I could have been in that gym. Having that sense of athletic community is so important.”