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International players fueling Towson volleyball’s run to NCAA tournament: ‘It’s like a little family being part of a bigger family’

From left, Elon’s Jenn Krzeminski and Haylie Clark, CAA deputy commissioner Jennifer Condaras, Towson’s Nina Cajic, Lydia Wiers and Irbe Lazda pose for a photo honoring the All-CAA Tournament team. Lazda, the CAA Tournament Most Outstanding Performer, and Cajic are two of the international players leading the Tigers this season into the NCAA tournament.
From left, Elon’s Jenn Krzeminski and Haylie Clark, CAA deputy commissioner Jennifer Condaras, Towson’s Nina Cajic, Lydia Wiers and Irbe Lazda pose for a photo honoring the All-CAA Tournament team. Lazda, the CAA Tournament Most Outstanding Performer, and Cajic are two of the international players leading the Tigers this season into the NCAA tournament. (Nick Sibol/Towson Athletics)

It’s all Greek to Fay Bakodimou and her teammates in the Towson volleyball program.

Since Bakodimou, a native of Athens, Greece, joined the Tigers as a freshman in 2018, her teammates have picked up several Greek phrases and sayings, including “Opa!” which is similar to “Hooray!” and some others that Bakodimou admitted are “not always good ones.” Junior outside hitter Morgan Wilson has learned a good portion of the Greek alphabet. And Bakodimou has taken many teammates to Greek restaurants in Baltimore to sample the fare she misses the most, especially souvlaki.

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Bakodimou is touched by the display.

“It’s just a great feeling because it shows that they’re interested in your culture,” the senior outside hitter said. “Our culture is a pretty big part of every single person’s, and them showing that they want to learn more about it just means a lot because they’re not just fine with the fact that we’re teammates and I’m from Greece and they’re from here. They want to learn more, and that’s why a lot of times, we call each other family because we do so many more things than just play volleyball.”

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Bakodimou is one of several international players who have been involved in Towson’s success, which includes three consecutive Colonial Athletic Association tournament championships. Bakodimou was named to the All-CAA first team after leading the league in service aces with 61 and ranking seventh in total kills with 300.

Redshirt freshman middle blocker Irbe Lazda of Mārupe, Latvia, was tabbed the conference tournament’s Most Valuable Player after racking up 22 kills and 11 blocks in two wins, and sophomore outside hitter Nina Čajić of Subotica, Serbia, joined Lazda on the tournament’s first team after accruing 20 kills.

Their play figures to be pivotal when the Tigers (26-4) meet Penn State (20-10), which is ranked No. 15 in the most recent American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday at 4 p.m. at Pittsburgh.

“It’s great because it’s like a little family being part of a bigger family,” Bakodimou said of the international players’ contributions. “It’s just so refreshing when you have people from different parts of the world bringing in so many different things and you all can communicate and play together and achieve something all together.”

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Sophomore outside hitter Nina Čajić of Subotica, Serbia, had 20 kills in two conference tournament games.
Sophomore outside hitter Nina Čajić of Subotica, Serbia, had 20 kills in two conference tournament games. (Nick Sibol/Towson Athletics)

On Friday at 7 p.m., the host Panthers (26-3), the tournament’s No. 3 seed, will tangle with America East Conference champion UMBC, which also relies on a group of international players. Freshman outside hitter Mia Bilusic of Zagreb, Croatia, was tabbed the league’s Rookie of the Year after leading the conference in overall kills with 401, and freshman outside hitter Mila Ilieva of Vidin, Bulgaria, joined her on the All-Rookie Team with a .239 hitting percentage that ranked 10th in the conference.

Junior setter Andjelija Draskovic of Vrnjačka Banja, Serbia, was honored as the league tournament’s Most Valuable Player after accumulating 105 assists and 27 digs in two victories, and sophomore middle blocker Beste Ayhan of Istanbul, Turkey, joined Draskovic on the All-Tournament Team after compiling 17 blocks and five kills.

Towson has fielded international players in the past but began concentrating on growing a pipeline to Europe when coach Don Metil hired assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Terry Hutchinson in 2017.

“When you’re looking at Europe, not everybody has the means or ability or desire to go over there,” said Hutchinson, who has had to compete lately with coaches from nationally ranked programs such as Stanford, Texas and Wisconsin. “So the number of teams going after a top player kind of shrink, and our percentages of grabbing a top player kind of go up.”

Hutchinson said he relies on a network of coaches to provide scouting reports on potential recruits. Because the coronavirus pandemic has severely reduced travel to Europe, he has asked interested players to email videos of full matches instead of highlight clips.

Hutchinson said sometimes the best recruiting tool is the group of international players already on the roster.

“These are young ladies that are leaving their families and coming across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, and they want to know that they can trust you and that you will take care of them,” he said. “So we want to show them, ‘Look, we have other Europeans here and other internationals here that have been through this, and you can speak with them, and they will show that once you’re here, we will take care of you, and we will make sure that you are provided for.’”

The adjustment for international players has been less difficult because the coaches and players have made the atmosphere around the Tigers welcoming, according to Čajić.

“I would definitely say that volleyball made it a lot easier to transition to America just because of the friendships I made with my teammates,” she said via email. “They were truly a very important part of my transition, and they made it a lot easier.”

Towson volleyball's redshirt freshman middle blocker Irbe Lazda of Mārupe, Latvia, was tabbed the conference tournament’s Most Valuable Player after racking up 22 kills and 11 blocks in two wins.
Towson volleyball's redshirt freshman middle blocker Irbe Lazda of Mārupe, Latvia, was tabbed the conference tournament’s Most Valuable Player after racking up 22 kills and 11 blocks in two wins. (Nick Sibol/Towson Athletics)

Besides language, food and homesickness, one of the biggest adaptations is the style of play in the United States. Hutchinson said the ball is set lower here, which encourages a more accelerated pace. Another difference is that American players are instructed to turn and run to the backcourt whereas European players are taught to backpedal.

Hutchinson said Bakodimou, Čajić, Lazda and sophomore opposite Sara Wasiakowska of Kieszczewo, Poland (73 kills and 27 blocks) have not surprised anyone with their play.

“They’re all really great athletes, and they’ve had a lot of experience playing in Europe,” he said. “Fay played with the Greek youth national team. Nina’s mom, aunt and grandmother all played for the Yugoslavian national team. Sara played in the Polish youth national program. Irbe trained with the Latvian national women’s team. So they all have a large amount of experience coming in here.”

Čajić said one aspect of the team that isn’t usually replicated in Europe is the level of enthusiasm.

“I think that the team atmosphere is very different than it was in Serbia,” she said. “It’s a lot louder and energetic, which I love very much.”

Friday’s match will be Towson’s first against Penn State since the Nittany Lions defeated the Tigers in four sets in the second round of the 2019 tournament. Bakodimou said she and her teammates are hungry for a chance to advance deeper in the postseason.

“We know that this is where our team has struggled in the past,” she said of early exits. “I guess we’re doing our best to find a way — even though we’re playing such a good team — to win. We think we have what it takes to win.”

NCAA first round

TOWSON VS. NO. 15 PENN STATE

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Pittsburgh, Pa.

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Friday, 4 p.m.

Streaming: ESPN+

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