It’s often said that a person is defined not by the years they’ve lived but by the experiences they’ve gone through. For me, among those experiences one stands out – playing volleyball for Coach Russ Rose at Penn State. A few people know that about me, but I played volleyball for many years both as a teen in Bulgaria and then at PSU in the early 2000’s.
A whole decade has gone by since my playing days, but when I recently received a package from my beloved Coach, I couldn’t help but share the excitement. With the help of my son Denzin, I made the video below where I share its contents. Check it out:
Words can’t describe how I felt when I opened the large envelope. It had my original playing jersey with my name and number of the back! It was so well preserved too. As Coach’s note said, it brought so many fond memories. I just couldn’t believe how such a busy man would still find a minute to send me such a priceless gift. Thank you, Coach!!!
For those unfamiliar with collegian volleyball, it’s important to note Penn State Women’s Volleyball dynasty status. Coach Rose has been voted AVCA National Coach of the Year five times: 1990, 1997, 2007, 2008, and 2013, more than any other Division I coach. Also, he has the highest winning record in Penn State athletics 1161–180 at the end of 2014 season. Since taking over PSU Volleyball in 1979, Coach Rose led the team to a total of seven Division I NCAA Championship titles – 1999, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014. Today PSU Volleyball is a synonym with one of the most prestigious volleyball programs in the country, and certainly the top-ranked one on the East Coast.
So how did a girl from Bulgaria end up playing volleyball at Penn State, you may wonder? While in my video I share a bit of my story, I would like to elaborate more here. My family arrived in the United States on December 19, 1997. A few days later, I turned on the TV and ended up watching a women’s volleyball match on ESPN. The game was between Penn State and Stanford, both playing for the Championship title. As a volleyball player myself, who has competed for the best team in Bulgaria, I was glued to the TV set analyzing the players skills. Even though they lost, the players on the PSU team made a huge impression on me – Lauren Cacciamani, Bonnie Bremmer, Terri Zemaitis especially. The chemistry on the team was absolutely magical! It’s at that moment, I said to myself, “THIS IS THE TEAM I WANT TO PLAY FOR SOME DAY!” Mind you, I had no idea who Penn State was, where they were located or how could I even get to contact the coach. That was long before the conviniences of social media.
In the following couple of years, I visited other volleyball programs – Rutgers University, Saint Peter’s University, University of Central Florida (UCF), but none made me feel like I “belonged” there. Then in the fall of 1999, a family friend took me to visit Penn State University. That weekend in October, PSU was hosting both football and volleyball games against Michigan State. I clearly remember the intense energy on the campus – people everywhere, tailgating and celebrating the great tradition of sports at Penn State. If you have ever visited PSU during a football game weekend, then you’d know EXACTLY what I’m talking about. It was like nothing I have ever experienced in my life at that point.
Equally mesmerizing was the volleyball match between the teams later in Rec Hall. The Nittany Lions plowed over the Spartans in front of roaring 3,000 plus fans. Following the game, I walked up to Coach Ross to congratulate him on his win. As I introduced myself I told him that I am a volleyball player from Bulgaria and my biggest dream was to go to school at Penn State and play on his awesome team. He looked at me, smiled and told me to come back next morning at 8 am and do a tryout practice with his team. I was stunned by his proposition!
That night I went to the local Walmart to buy sneakers and workout clothes. Next morning I showed up promptly in South Gym and tried out for a spot on the team. After the practice, Coach Ross called me at his office where he and Coach Erin (she was in charge of recruiting back then) offered me a spot on the team for next season. Ironically, Penn State ended up playing Stanford again and won their first Championship title in 1999.
In the spring of 2000, my application to Penn State was accepted and I was part of the six freshmen on the team in 2000-2001 season. You can easily spot me on the far right.
The hard work, sweat and tears later paid off when I was given the Most Improved Player Award at the annual student-athlete banquet in the spring. My volleyball career soon came to an abrupt ending when I was critically injured in the spring of 2002. A sprained ankle injury proved too painful and difficult to heal, and I made the decision to focus on my studies instead.
I am beyond grateful to have been a part of such a phenomenal volleyball program as Penn State Women’s Volleyball. The experience taught me how to set a vision and follow through with actions. It taught me that great coaches can spot talent even in the most unconventional of circumstances. It taught me to be consistent, persistent and disciplined. It taught me to believe in myself and not be afraid to pursue my dreams.
Such life-defining experiences are blessings. Years later I am beyond grateful to my Coach Rose and to everyone at Penn State for giving me the opportunity to be part of the program. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!!!
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