Marija Tomaševic is extremely grateful to have Effrosyni Bakodimou with her at Towson.
Not only are they both sophomores on the volleyball team, but they also are international students who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and left behind their homes, families and friends.
“I would say that if I didn’t have Fay last year, I would die,” said Tomaševic, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter from Užice, Serbia. “I would be so sad because last year was my first year here, and so we went through everything together. Even though she had a [season-ending ACL] injury, she was still there off the court for me. So the biggest support was her. I’m grateful that Fay is here.”
Added Bakodimou, another 5-foot-11 outside hitter who prefers to be called Fay and is from Athens, Greece: “Having Marija with me because she came at the same time and we’re in the same class, that’s definitely a huge plus. We experienced basically everything together. So it was nice to do things together.”
Tomaševic (full name pronounced mah-REE-yah tohmAH-sheh-vihch) and Bakodimou (pronounced ba-ko-THEE-moo) are two of four players on the team’s roster who grew up outside the United States. Senior 5-foot-10 middle blocker Silvia Grassini was raised in Padua, Italy, while freshman 5-foot-8 setter Danielle Gravina hails from Ontario, Canada.
Grassini has the most playing experience of the four. She has started all 16 matches this season for the Tigers. She leads the league in hitting percentage at .423 and ranks second in blocks at 1.17 per set.
Towson (14-2, 4-0, Colonial Athletic Association) will put its eight-match winning streak on the line at William & Mary (5-10, 1-3) on Friday and then Elon (8-9, 3-1) on Sunday.
Assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Terry Hutchinson said all four international players have been valuable contributors to the program’s best start in the CAA since 2012.
“It’s a great dynamic to bring to the team, their experiences that they share with our girls, and they learn from our girls as well,” he said. “It’s just neat culturally for the entire locker room.”
A desire for a college degree and ability to play competitive volleyball spurred all four players to consider playing in the United States. But leaving the comfort of their homes was difficult.
“This is more important than living at home for four years,” she said. “I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can make you grow and help you learn new cultures and new volleyball. It’s too big of an opportunity to let go just because you’re far away from home.”
Adjusting to life at an American university took some time. Grassini, Bakodimou and Tomaševic said learning British English at their respective schools did not prepare them for the slang used by their American classmates. Gravina was amazed by the multicultural diversity the campus offered. And Tomaševic had to figure out how to greet new acquaintances and friends without kissing them on the cheeks.
“That’s what we Serbians do,” she said. “We hug each other. I think we show love way more than people here do, and that was the hardest thing for me to adopt and to adjust and to realize how and when to do certain things.”
Even volleyball is not a universal language. When transitioning from offense to defense, European players are trained to backpedal, while American players are instructed to turn their hips and run. Europeans generally set the ball higher, while the American pace of play is faster.
While every player on European courts learns how to set the ball, the American version places that responsibility primarily on the setters and liberos, or defensive specialists.
“When I first started practicing and I got that ball, everybody looked at me and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I was like, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” said Grassini, who said it took her about a year to rid herself of the habit.
Grassini’s prowess at the net has earned her the nickname of “Kill-via” from her teammates. Hutchinson said Tomaševic has been solid at ball control and defense, Bakodimou is one of the hardest hitters on the team, and Gravina has been backing up senior setter Marrisa Wonders. He noted all three have helped at practice.
“They’re really challenging the starting side every day in practice,” he said. “Things like that really raise the level of practice. We like to think that if practice is tougher than the match, then we’re doing a good thing.”
Despite limited playing time, Bakodimou, Tomaševic and Gravina said they are seizing the chance to learn from their older and more experienced teammates.
“It’s a really special team this year, and we have a lot of great senior leadership,” Gravina said. “So I’m excited to see what the rest of the season holds. Hopefully, we can keep up this winning streak.”
The winning helps allay some of the creature comforts of home that the four international players miss. Hugs from family members and friends are high on their lists, but so is food.
For Grassini, it’s authentic Italian pizza. For Bakodimou, it’s souvlaki, a pita stuffed with grilled meats and vegetables. For Tomaševic, it’s gibanica, a pastry filled with cheese, spinach and meat. And for Gravina, it’s her mother’s homemade chicken parmesan.
For now, all four players are enjoying the ride as Towson owns the only unblemished conference record in the CAA. All four are also keeping an eye on the future as Grassini will graduate in May with a bachelor’s in international business, which is the major that Tomaševic is leaning toward pursuing. Bakodimou and Gravina are both considering business majors.
Pursuing a master’s degree, a career in their respective majors, a path to professional volleyball, or returning home are options all four players agree they must consider.
“That’s the biggest question mark that international student-athletes have,” Bakodimou said. “For me, I keep an open mind, and I don’t want to be set in one thing. What last year taught me is you can never expect and never know what tomorrow brings. So whatever my situation is and depending on the circumstances and how I feel at the time when I’m graduating, that’s what I’m going to do.”