Dec. 3, 2009

By Judd Spicer
Special to

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The word “zwycięstwo,” translated from Polish, means “victory.”

While the state of Minnesota may be more familiar with battle cries of Scandinavian origin, the Dowling College Golden Lions of Oakdale, N.Y., and veteran head coach Alex Koszalka, whose season ended in the quarterfinals of the Division II Women’s Volleyball Championship at Concordia University-St. Paul on Thursday, enjoyed a great deal of zwycięstwo in their 2009 campaign, which included their fourth Elite Eight trip in the last five years.

Koszalka’s 2009 squad counted three foreign-born players on the roster. Patrycja Klekotka and Monika Kasperek hail from Poland. And third-team All-American Maja Potpara comes to NCAA volleyball via Pljevlja, Montenegro. Koszalka, who speaks Polish, began recruiting European players eight years ago, in his second season at the Golden Lions’ helm.

“They’re very physical players and very mature people,” Koszalka says of his imports. “To go to school across the ocean, you have to be a pretty strong person. They take this very seriously, and they’re very good students.

“I’ve never had any problems with any of the European kids as far as academics. They look at this as an opportunity to make their lives better, whether they stay in the U.S. after school or return to their home country.”

Poland owns a rich history in volleyball, with Olympic bronze medals won by the Polish women’s team in the 1964 and ’68 Games and a gold by the Polish men in 1976. Koszalka cites their grounded approach, along with the sport’s feverish Euro presence, for what makes his foreign-born charges unique.

“Volleyball in Europe, it’s as big as basketball is here,” he says. “Unfortunately in the U.S., we don’t have the pro leagues like they do there. It’s not to say that we don’t have good players here. It’s just taken more seriously in Europe.”

Such earnestness, Koszalka adds, translates to the player’s on-court posture.

“It’s a different style of play,” he says. “At times my administrators will tend to say that they look like they’re lazy players. But it’s just that they’re not as emotional. For European kids, it’s like business, an older-school mentality.”

While the players all speak fluent English, communication on the court presents a multi-cultural flavor along with an occasional hurdle.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” says senior outside hitter Kelly Scott. “But it gives us a lot of funny moments when people are learning new words. We have a great time together learning about the new languages and different cultures, learning about each other. So it’s really educational as well.”

In the opening quarterfinal match of the Elite Eight, Dowling, winner of the East Region, took on Flagler College, winner of the Southeast Region. The match marked Flagler’s debut in the Elite Eight in the first NCAA Tournament appearance for the fourth-year NCAA member. Based on the Saints’ performance in Thursday’s opener, it won’t be their last.

Though Dowling’s imports compiled some impressive numbers in the first-ever meeting between the schools, including eight kills by Klekotka and 17 assists and 13 digs for Potpara, Flagler swept the Golden Lions 3-0. For Flagler (36-8), senior outside hitter Katie Beale celebrated her birthday by combining with junior middle blocker Meg Weathersby for 28 kills and 23 digs, while sophomore setter Olivia Snipes contributed 21 assists. The win marked Flagler’s 29th consecutive victory.

The Saints look to extend their streak in Friday’s semifinal against West Texas A&M, which defeated California (Pa.) 3-1. Dowling ends its season 29-6.