Florida State’s melting pot
Seminoles achieving on-court success with global roster
The humor is not lost on Florida State volleyball coach Chris Poole that this guy from Arkansas with quite a drawl oversees a team that resembles the United Nations.
“I’m from a little, bitty town in north central Arkansas and about as country boy as a country boy can be coaching kids from all over the world,” Poole said.
And his is not just a team that’s interesting. The big, strong and athletic Seminoles were ranked 23rd in the latest AVCA Coaches’ Poll after their upset of Miami (Fla.) the week before.
Two Serbs. A couple of Turks. A Brazilian. A New Zealander. And another from Latvia.
All of the FSU players, of course, speak English, but their versions can be quite different.
“Volleyball is a huge communication sport,” said Rachel Morgan, a 6-foot-2 senior outside hitter from Tauranga, New Zealand. “You have to find a way to deal with it somehow. It helps that volleyball has a lot of hand signals and volleyball is more about movement than having to speak to each other.
“That helps, but it was definitely a struggle at the start.”
The two Serbs, 6-1 senior outside hitter Visnja Djurdjevic and 6-4 junior outside/middle Marija Milosavijevic, are transfers from Tulane.
Senior Patricia Fiqueiredo is a setter from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who transferred from Missouri State-West Plains, a junior college.
Jekaterina Stepanova is a 6-2 senior outside from Riga, Latvia, who also played at Missouri State.
And 5-11 junior outside hitter Fatma Yildirim and 5-10 junior setter Duygu Duzceler are from Istanbul.
“They’re all great kids,” Poole said. “They’re good students, they’re very respectful and very appreciative of what they have and appreciative to be in America and get an education. We don’t talk about the differences, although they all have differences, but more the similarities of the their love for volleyball and being here and part of a team. It is fun and I think they learn a lot from each other.”
Of course, being on a team means learning how to tease.
“At Tulane, my American teammates would make fun of us,” Djurdjevic said with a laugh, “because we were the only foreigners. But then we got here we were not the only people being made fun of.”
She admitted that when she came to America she thought the English she’s learned in class would be enough.
“But when I first got [to Tulane] I realized, ‘I don’t really know how to say stuff. I understand you guys, but I can’t really respond to your questions.’ It was kind of weird.”
No longer, of course, luckily for the coach. Poole, who built the Arkansas program from scratch, starting the sport there in 1994, took the Florida State job in 2008.
“While I was visiting here I realized every program on campus was going to postseason except for volleyball,” Poole said, understanding the challenge ahead. And, he cracked, “I’d been beating my head against the [Florida] Gators and 11 of the 14 years we won the SEC West but we couldn’t knock off the Gators. And I always thought that what an advantage it would be to be coaching in Florida and attracting kids.”
In 2008, the Seminoles notched their second 20-victory season since 2002. The next year, FSU won its first Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship and then last season made the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.
One thing Poole did was bring with him assistant coach Gokhan Yilmaz, a Turk from Istanbul whose European connections have gone a long way, especially in getting Duzceler and Yildirim. Poole said his emphasis is on recruiting Americans, but wasn’t going to turn down outstanding foreign players, especially a couple of years ago when he had a large, talented class graduate. He pointed to the large number of teams that have had NCAA postseason success with foreign stalwarts.
And, “for international kids, there’s no doubt that when they think of the United States, they think of California, Florida and New York,” Pool said. “They think that’s where you’re supposed to live.”
Morgan, the New Zealander who is the only one of the current FSU foreigners to have have been there four years and actually commited to the school before Poole was hired, was playing beach volleyball in Europe when she got noticed, she said.
“I got home and told my mom I was going to move to America,” she recalled. “I don’t think she believed me and then the coaches started calling and I applied for the visas it all became all too real for her.”
Very real for Morgan, too.
“Just coming to America was a culture shock,” said Morgan, who admitted that most of her exposure previously to people from another country was with Australians.
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There was nothing to prepare her for American college football and the fervent fans that go with it.
“Coming over here and seeing how big sport was in college, I never saw anything like that before. I totally underestimated the fan base that schools here have.”
Imagine seeing and hearing the Doak Campbell crowd do the tomahawk chant and chop for the first time.
“It really blew my mind,” Morgan said. “Our big sport at home is rugby. The stadium here holds more than any stadium I’d ever been in. Before the professional level there was this kind of support, I couldn’t believe it. Still, when I go into games today, it takes my breath away. Every single time.”
Poole recalled with a laugh Morgan’s first practice when she actually went to the coach afterward and thanked him for such a great practice.
“They’re just so appreciative of the opportunity they have,” he said.
Poole said since this current team, a mix that includes seven Americans, has had so much success, he’s started to hear from even more international players.
At least one of his American players would embrace them.
Ashley Neff is a sophomore middle blocker from Kennesaw, Ga., who has never been overseas. Now, after being with her teammates, she can’t wait to explore the world.
“I absolutely love playing with them,” Neff said. “There are so many good personalities. It’s so different than playing with a whole team of Americans. I’ve learned so much from all of them. It’s really fun.”