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Army Volleyball Dreams of Going Places:

From Italy to the NCAA Tournament

By Kim McDermott ’87, WPAOG staff

Photo above: the team poses for a group shot with a participant in a Unified Sports event at West Point on March 24, 2019

Overseas trips for teams are a growing trend in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and current NCAA rules allow a team to travel once every four years. Over spring break this year, the Army West Point Volleyball Team traveled for the first time to Italy. Head Coach Alma Kovaci Lee says it has been a long-time dream to bring the team abroad. A native of Albania, she spent many pre-seasons training in Italy and knew a trip there would provide teambuilding and accelerated development opportunities for the players.

Kovaci Lee knew that the team would never have a chance to do something like this during the summers, when West Point cadets must participate in unit and individualized military training, so she planned for years to put together a trip over spring break. Offering a special thanks to families and alumni who support the program, she earmarked donations to the program over time to fund the trip, and credits team supporters for making it all possible. In fact, the entire trip became a reality due to Margin of Excellence gifts— donations from alumni, parents, and other friends of the Volleyball Team.

Some of the biggest supporters of the team are Susie and Henry Jordan, the mother and stepfather of team alumna Maureen Bannon ’10. Still supporting the program almost a decade after Bannon graduated, they say, “Maureen experienced a wonderful career at West Point largely due to her volleyball experiences. [Volleyball] provided her with leadership and perseverance skills and development crucial to her growth as an officer in the U.S. Army. We believe that international travel experiences provide unique growth and leadership opportunities for these young women athletes, in the tradition of the Long Gray Line.”

This past season, the team had no seniors, and Kovaci Lee wanted to ensure that she got the most team-building out of the trip as possible. She wanted the players to get to know each other well off the court, as well as on. She believes the cultural immersion aspect of the trip, learning and navigating unfamiliar territory, “allowed the players to really get to know each other at a deeper level.” The week was “very busy, with lots of buses and trains.” The tour took them from Venice to Milan, Lucca and Pisa, and Rome. Between Venice and Milan, the team visited the Army base in Vicenza. Hosted by the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, the players spent several hours meeting with members of the unit and learning about the unit and its mission.

Photo left: CDTS Sydney Morriss ’20, Lauren Janok ’22, and Emmy Barnhorst ’22 celebrate a point versus San Francisco at the Army Invitational Tournament in August 2018

During the trip, the team got to play semi-pro level opponents. In Italy they personally experienced what they’ve heard about the higher level players by facing them on the court. Even as they were being defeated, they learned. As international rules differ from U.S. rules, Kovaci Lee says, “It was fun to see the team adjust to a different form of the game.” Overall, she says, “The players got smarter, and developed their skills around control and taking advantage of opponent weaknesses.” She says, “It is one thing to hear it said, but entirely different to learn as it’s happening to you.” Cadet Hannah Presley ’21 says, “You could see [the opponents’] intensity and passion throughout each play.”

The trip also provided a healthy dose of cultural awareness. Kovaci Lee says that the players “need to be exposed to the world,” as future officers. While in Italy, they enjoyed food, lifestyle, and history very different from home. And through all this learning, they had an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. Cadet Sydney Morriss ’20 says, “Our trip to Italy was the most memorable thing I’ve gotten to experience here at the Academy. As a player on the West Point Volleyball Team, I felt very privileged to be able to travel a part of the world I’ve never been to with my amazing coaches and teammates, and not only get to tour with them but play by their sides against foreign teams. One of the most important things I learned on this trip is that we are all a family and to never take for granted the amazing opportunities we are given.” One of Kovaci Lee’s favorite things about the trip was just the fun of the team seeing each other in this new environment. She recounts a story of just walking down a street and hearing “Hey, Coach!” She looked in the direction of the voice to see one of her players in a gondola, waving at her. This chance encounter was random and out of context, yet familiar, all at the same time, evoking that “small world” type of feeling.

In the words of Cadet Ana Oglivie ’21, the team left Italy having grown “as a team, as volleyball players, as women, and as future officers in the United States Army.” She says, “I will be forever be inspired by Italy, and grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Kovaci Lee looks forward to observing this growth reflected in the upcoming season. She is certain that the bonds between the players are stronger than ever, and that will translate to success on the court. She prizes the skills development aspect of the tour, describing one set as the best volleyball she ever saw the team play.

While it was tough, leadership-wise, not to have seniors on the team last year, Kovaci Lee knows that the spring break trip to Italy will make the team stronger this year. Volleyball is already one of Army’s most successful athletic programs, so this should make for an exciting season this fall. With 16 years of experience at West Point (four as an Assistant Coach and 12 as Head Coach), Kovaci Lee is well prepared to lead the way forward.

Photo right: CDTs Courtney Horace ’20 and Emmy Barnhorst ’22 go up for a block against Hofstra at the Black Knights Invitational Tournament in September 2018

Kovaci Lee shares the five priorities (inherited from the previous Head Coach, Glen Conley) that guide the team: Faith, Family, Academics, Volleyball, and Military. When Kovaci Lee took over, she kept them—understanding that it “makes sense to have your priorities straight when you lead a team.” While these are listed in order, she is quick to point out that military is listed last for a reason. It is not because it is unimportant. Indeed, it is a given. It is the foundation and the environment, and if players are doing what they should, they will succeed. It is not a competing priority; it is why they are here.

While her culture growing up in Albania did not support practicing religion, she respects that it is a strong priority for many people and will always accommodate it. No practice or game is more important than family—players can always go home in the event of a family emergency. As to Academics, she tells players “This is your future.” Interestingly, these top three priorities come before the actual craft of the sport. But Kovaci Lee realizes that some things are more important than a game — and the players are better off knowing that they have her support if something like a family emergency, or a tough week of academics gets in the way of their finest moments on the court. Only then can they give their best to the program, and to each other.

They also give their best to the West Point community. Kovaci Lee was surprised and proud to discover—via a community Facebook page—that, one week after returning from Italy, players had volunteered at a Unified Sports event on post. (Unified Sports is a program of Special Olympics, offering young people with disabilities a chance to play team sports.) Volleyball also runs a free volleyball clinic every week while in spring season. Kovaci Lee adds, “The team has also supported Special Olympics for all 16 years that I have been with the program.”

Kovaci Lee says, “There is more than winning that is important when building a team.” Everyone involved needs to be cognizant of the love and care that happens, when players learn who they can rely on and how they can handle tough situations. “We shouldn’t walk on eggshells,” she says. “We need to be frank and comfortable talking to each other about the important things.” From the coaching standpoint, she paraphrases Theodore Roosevelt, “Athletes don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” She stresses, “The players need to know you care about them…then you can go places!”

Speaking of going places: the team’s goal next season is to win the Patriot League Championship and qualify for the NCAA tournament. Kovaci Lee says, “These young women are determined, and we can do it! Everyone says they want to win championships, but to do what it takes requires a clear vision, total commitment and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. I believe our team can achieve it next season.” She believes it because she understands that winning is always about taking care of the process. The trip to Italy is a perfect illustration of the process— doing what it takes to make a dream come true and go places.

https://www.pageturnpro.com/West-Point-Association-of-Graduates/90864-West-Point-Magazine-Summer-2019/sdefault.html#page/50

Printed in West Point magazine, Summer 2019, all rights reserved.