Nov. 30, 2009

Photo Courtesy of Army

By Jennifer Gunnels
Special to

The Army volleyball team made history this weekend, entering the NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship for the first time and becoming the only service academy to ever appear in the tournament field. For former players serving in Iraq, the team's postseason run is happy news from the banks of the Hudson during a holiday season far from home.

"We've had so much support from Army officers and former players serving overseas," said head coach Alma Kovaci. "So many people have been a part of the success of this program. We just remember that this is for all of them, too. Bringing a smile to their faces, that's important to us. It's reminded us that this is a great thing for our team, and for the Army in general."

Senior captain Rachel Dunn agreed that sharing the experience with the military family has made the accomplishments more meaningful to the team. When the Black Knights of West Point knocked off eight-time defending Patriot League champion American University on November 22, shutting out the Eagles 3-0 at home in dramatic fashion, servicemen and women overseas were able to follow the action via an online webcast.

"Having their support feels like we're part of something bigger than ourselves, and bigger than just volleyball," Dunn said.  "Giving people serving over in Iraq something to be excited about is what makes it valuable to us. We've gotten support from every level of the military. We're humbled by it and we're really honored."

Army will face the University of Pennsylvania in first-round play on Friday evening, extending a season that has brought joy throughout the Long Gray Line.

"It's an incredible feeling to see this team succeed," Kovaci said of her young squad. "They truly enjoy playing volleyball together, and that has been this team's greatest strength."

After a memorable 2008 campaign that resulted in the highest winning percentage in program history, the Black Knights began the 2009 season with just one returning starter, senior setter Maureen Bannon. With an overall roster made up mostly of underclassmen, many were calling it a rebuilding year for the women of West Point.

"The chemistry of the team really changed to a family dynamic this year," said senior captain Rachel Dunn. "West Point is very challenging, especially playing sports here. People don't come here just to play volleyball. We have to rely on heart and pride and love of the game."

Upon graduating from the United States Military Academy, cadets are commissioned into the U.S. Army and serve on active duty for a minimum of five years. West Point cadets face a rigorous academic schedule, and the team has a window of approximately two and a half hours for practice on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

"These kids take 22 credits per semester," Kovaci said. "They don't have a choice; they can't take fewer classes if it's too much work for them. Their day starts at 6:55 with breakfast formation, and then they have classes. It's really more about the quality than the quantity of practice. My goal is just making volleyball the best part of their day."

While Kovaci acknowledges that recruiting is a challenge at service academies, she has adopted a system that adjusts the program's style of play to the cadet-athletes in the program, instead of recruiting only cadet-athletes who fit an established style of play.

"My philosophy is that they need to be interested in West Point first, then the volleyball team," Kovaci said. "Then we bring them into the gym, and we are able to create the system around who we have in the gym. Recruiting can be really difficult, but we're finding that once people become educated about West Point, they are more open to the opportunity. It's really an awesome place."

The Black Knights gathered at the home of Army athletic director Kevin Anderson on Sunday afternoon to watch the women's volleyball championship selection show, where they learned that they will travel to University Park, Pennsylvania to take on the Quakers on Friday.

"It's exciting, but I don't want to make a really big deal out of it because at the end of the day it's going to come down to a game of volleyball," Kovaci said. "There will be a volleyball and a court and an opponent on the other side of the net that we need to beat."

A native of Tirana, Albania, Kovaci is one of volleyball's brightest young coaches. In her first head coaching job and just her third year at the helm, Kovaci was recently named the Patriot League Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season. She was also honored by West Point in May with the annual Mike Krzyzewski Teaching Character Through Sport Award, presented to individuals who display the Army values of integrity, respect, selfless service, duty, honor, loyalty, and personal courage.

"Volleyball has been my passion, so coaching was just the right thing to do," said Kovaci, who led this year's Army team to a sweep of all of the major Patriot League awards. Bannon was named Setter of the Year while freshman outside hitter Ariana Mankus became the first player in conference history to be named Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in the same season.

Dunn says it was Kovaci's confidence in her young squad that paved the way for the historic season.

"She can be the first person to tell you what you're doing wrong, but she's also the first person to congratulate you and encourage you and tell you what you're doing right," Dunn said. "Everyone was saying it was going to be a rebuilding year, but she pushed everyone like she did last season and expected the same level of play from us.

"Being part of the first service academy team in the championship, it's exciting. It's not like a record that someone could come along and break, it's a historic moment that we'll always be part of."