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St. John’s women’s volleyball breaching barriers

It has been a quiet winter for the St. John’s women’s volleyball team. Snubbed out of a berth in the NCAA tournament despite sharing a conference title with the invited Cincinnati Bearcats, members of the Red Storm have had two full months to lick their wounds and contemplate the past season.
For five players, the contemplation has been a little deeper. Outside hitter Casie Brooks, middle hitter Chen Chen, outside hitter Valeria Kovaleva, setter Wioleta Leszczynska, and libero Lena Yee have all completed their final year of college volleyball, about to adopt a new challenge that invariably daunts most undergrads.
Expect these five to do just fine, however. When it comes to life changes, they have experience. To understand what they endured just to arrive at St. John’s, consider their hometowns: Victorville, California (Brooks; 2,700 miles away); Bielsko-Biala, Poland (Leszczynska; 4,505); Moscow, Russia (Kovaleva; 4,662); Honolulu, Hawaii (Yee; 4,977); and Tianjin, China (Chen; 6,883).
In fact, the most local member of the Red Storm’s roster is freshman middle hitter Jordan Haskins of Glenelg, Maryland (a paltry 201 miles away). That eight of the team’s 12 players are of foreign origin gives St. John’s a decidedly international flair, with home countries ranging from Brazil to Trinidad and Tobago. There is a pronunciation guide in the team’s media booklet.
Since their arrivals, Leszczynska and Yee, arguably the team’s two biggest stars, have had a while to make Queens their home, indelibly leaving a few marks on the university record books. Leszczynska ranks third in St. John’s history with 4371 career assists; Yee leaves the team as its career leader in digs, with 2079. Yet they both vividly remember what it was like to adjust to New York.
Her campus visit at St. John’s marked the first time Yee, of Hawaii, had traveled outside the West Coast.
“I liked the city, but after being in Queens, it’s like, ‘This is different,’ ” she says. “Home just seems lighter. I was homesick, definitely, my freshman year. But then I would start to miss New York when I would go home.”
Poland’s Leszczynska, meanwhile, was first welcomed to New York City when she attended the Globe Institute of Technology, a junior college in Tribeca from which she transferred to St. John’s.
“I didn’t have any idea how it was going to be,” she says. “At first it was scary for me. I come from a small town. [But] I always wanted to try something different. I always wanted to come here. It seemed like a good opportunity for me.”
To ease the transition, Leszczynska had the support of some extended family on Long Island. But she still had to overcome the disadvantage of not speaking English very well, and she relied on her regular classes to help fill the gaps in her vocabulary and comprehension. Today, she speaks much more comfortably.
Latoya Blunt, a 2007 graduate and team legend, appears to have helped at least indirectly.
“Latoya would speak to me in English, and I would say, ‘Can you please speak slower?’ ” Leszczynska remembers.
“What, you don’t understand?” Blunt would tease back.
“Everyone would just laugh when [Blunt] was around,” Yee says.
When it comes to favorite moments over four years of volleyball, the verdict is unanimous: Yee and Leszczynska will never forget the 2007 season, in which the Red Storm went 33-4, won the first Big East championship in team history, and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
When St. John’s hosted the Long Island University Blackbirds in the first round at Carnesecca Arena, a record 1241 people attended, enough to fill the inner bowl of the facility. Yee and Leszczynska basked in the atmosphere; they point to the crowd at a 2007 international tournament in Vietnam - in which the Red Storm faced the national teams of Japan, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam (and finished second) - as the only audience more memorable.
On the day of our interview, though, Carnesecca Arena is bare. Employees are setting up the floor for a fencing competition, and the lines of the volleyball court are obscured by the paint of the basketball hardwood. Goodwill visits to coaches and team officials notwithstanding, Red Storm volleyball is now part of the past.
Leszczynska is sticking around to go to graduate school and study sports management.
“I was torn between two decisions: to go home, or to stay and pursue a career in grad school,” she says. “Right now I think my education is the most important thing for me. How many years are you going to play? But education is for the rest of your life.”
It’s for very nearly the same reason - taking advantage of a fleeting opportunity - that Yee plans to keep playing. She’s getting ready to send out some personal video footage to prospective clubs.
“I want to play overseas,” she says. “I just want to go off and play, come back a different person.”
Staring at the empty court, she sentimentalizes a little.
“I don’t know if it really has [hit me],” she says. “I’m going to miss all of it - our coaches, Joe [the team’s communications head], our trainer Jen. I know I am going to miss it because it is volleyball. I think about not playing on this court anymore. It’s going to be sad.”
Leszczynska offers her own reminiscence.
“It was just a great experience, being able to be around your best friends. Now it’s just real life coming,” she says. “I knew New York only from movies … but now I can’t imagine leaving it.”

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