A tale of two teams: volleying on two sides of the world
How volleyball's seven international athletes make AU the strongest team in the Patriot League
While her teammates were at the D.C. Challenge Tournament at George Washington University bonding and gaining their footing, Olivia Wassner was playing overseas for the Switzerland National Volleyball Team in the European Championship.
The Swiss junior setter has established herself to be a key piece of the Eagles’ equation this season, despite missing the first weekend of play of the season because she was overseas. She propelled the entire offensive attack throughout the season, averaging nearly 10 assists per set and leading the team in serving aces. Her outstanding play notched her Patriot League Setter of the Year.
This is one of the challenges that comes with being an international athlete on AU’s volleyball team. Aside from general language barriers, international athletes have to learn the American version of their sport.
AU’s 2019 roster has 17 spots, seven of which are held by international students from six different European countries. Only one other team in the Patriot League, the Bucknell Bison, rosters an international student. The remaining seven teams don’t roster any.
It didn’t take long for head coach Barry Goldberg to figure out that volleyball recruiting is not solely a domestic endeavor. In fact, he was quick to find out that international recruiting could be, and would be, an important part of building a legacy at AU. Athletes like Wassner prove this to be true.
Wassner was not the only one playing internationally this past summer. Patriot League Rookie of the Year freshman outside hitter Zeynep Uzen represented Turkey, her home country, in Mexico at the Women’s U20 World Championship this past July.
Aside from missing valuable early-season practice time with her teammates, Uzen struggled to adjust to the new systems of volleyball and life in the U.S.
“It was hard for me because I came from another country to a new system, new culture,” Uzen said. “Even in volleyball, something is different.”
Her international teammates totally understand what she means.
“Volleyball, everything was so different,” Wassner said. “The coaching styles, the pregame warm-ups, the serve and pass, traveling, it was all completely different. There were a lot of new expressions I had to get used to.”
Similarly, senior outside hitter Aleksandra Sochacka had to change a lot of her playstyle and positioning in order to adapt when she came to American from Poland.
“The defense was different for me, specifically,” Sochacka said. “I would have to be in a completely different spot than I would have normally been on the court if I played in Poland.”
The pace of play also changes heavily, with American volleyball emphasizing quicker scores and faster time of play. Sochacka was not used to the speed when she came to the U.S.
“I was playing at the juniors team in Poland, and it was just a slower paced game,” she said.
Despite all these challenges, freshmen adapt quickly with the help of Goldberg’s coaching staff and veteran teammates.
“It was hard,” Uzen said. “But now I’m good.”
And yet, Uzen has performed at better than just her own self-assured “good.” She remains squarely as a centerpiece of the team’s offense with 3.45 kills per set in conference play, highest of the team.
While challenges existed transitioning to an American volleyball court, there were some hurdles in the classroom to jump as well. International students often face an extra layer of difficulty at American colleges, particularly language difficulties and using English constantly.
“It’s challenging because I’m learning in a different language,” Uzen said. “Sometimes I have the answer in my mind but there’s a language barrier.”
Wassner had similar difficulties, but now that she’s in her third year of college, said she has put most of those issues behind her.
“It was harder for me in school just to pay attention to a foreign language, it’s more exhausting,” Wassner said. “It takes me longer to do the homework, like readings [and] writing papers. I still think it takes me longer than a native speaker but with enough effort, it wasn’t a problem.”
Since joining the school in 1989, Goldberg has gone on to amass a 262-18 (.935) Patriot League record. Since AU joined the conference in 2001, Goldberg’s team has been more than just a dominating force, having won the Patriot League Championship 15 out of 18 seasons.
“When I first got the job at American, I had to start thinking about [recruiting],” Goldberg told The Eagle. “Who is it that would come to American University and could be involved in sport?”
Goldberg said it became about selling the school and the city, which D.C. does by itself.
“The school has certain things that it does very well, it’s a high-end academic school. There's a lot of international flavor, even when I first came here,” he said.
Goldberg said he travels internationally about once a year to scout and recruit players at European tournaments.
“I knew that overseas was going to help us,” Goldberg said.
The Eagles’ 2019 season is no exception. The team finished atop the Patriot League standings, following a dominant 15-game winning streak to close out the season.
However, these busy schedules and time together has bonded this talented group. Goldberg emphasized that younger players should worry about feeling good on the team, not so much their play.
“Before I came here, it was a little bit scary,” Uzen explained. “I’m cool right now.”
Freshman libero Rachael Bennett agreed with that sense of coolness, both attributed this to the team’s strong chemistry: “Even just being here for three months so far, the atmosphere is so great.”
A key aspect of the team’s buying in to Goldberg’s philosophies comes from the fact that the team does not have any designated captains.
“On other teams when there’s a leadership role they think it’s their job [only], but for us, we all chip in,” senior middle blocker Jeanne Westney explained.
Wassner said that while this team dynamic does come with challenges, it has also allowed her to become a better player and teammate.
“It’s kind of a new role for me, to be the very first setter and have so much responsibility leading a team, but I’m really enjoying the challenge,” Wassner said.
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's December 2019 print edition.