Syracuse, off to 8-1 start, ready to get back to NCAA volleyball tournament

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Paulina Shemanova hits against Buffalo/Michael J. Okoniewski, SU Athletic Communications

When Syracuse hired Leonid Yelin as its coach before the 2012 season, he was brought in to do with the Orange what he did at Louisville, where, in his 15 seasons, the Cardinals won 366 matches. He had 11 seasons of at least 20 victories and led the team to 14 NCAA Tournaments.

The native of Uzbekistan also was coming to upstate New York at a critical time, as the school’s athletic programs were making the transition from the Big East to the ACC.

By 2018, the program saw the result of his efforts.

Syracuse finished 19-9 overall (14-4 in the ACC) and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament — the first NCAA berth in program history. The Orange also recorded their first NCAA victory, sweeping Yale before being eliminated by Penn State.

The accomplishments made quite an impression on then-freshman Polina Shemanova. The native of St. Petersburg, Russia, figured this was the status quo.

“I didn’t even know what to expect. Being an international student, you have never played on that level, and you don’t know the system of the tournament,” Shemanova said. “So I was thinking, ‘Yeah. This is how we roll. This is how it always is.’

“But then I realized it was the best and most successful year we’ve had so far. Definitely that first season is something … I want to repeat again.”

Life in the ACC, a tough conference that is growing tougher, isn’t always easy. Shemanova has learned that in her three seasons. Yelin has learned it, too, as the Orange have cycled through ups and downs during his tenure.

But this season, Syracuse (8-1) has shown signs it is ready to repeat its magic of 2018 and, perhaps, finally achieve sustained success in the conference. The Orange have won eight of their first nine matches, the only hiccup a 3-2 loss to the Big 12’s Iowa State in Iowa. Syracuse did, however, beat the Big Ten’s Iowa.

Shemanova is leading the ACC in kills per set (4.47), ranks second in points per set (5.14) and sixth in aces per set (0.47). Junior Marina Markova, also a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, is third in the conference in kills per set (4.38), third in points per set (5.08) and eighth in hitting percentage (.382).

Senior setter Elena Karakasi, who hails from Athens, Greece, is sixth in assists (9.87), and junior middle Abby Casiano, from Riverview, Florida, ranks fifth in blocks per set (1.28).

As a team, the Orange rank in the top three in the conference in hitting percentage (second), kills (second), opponent kills (second), blocks (second), opponent blocks (first), aces (third) and opponent aces (first).

“I think we definitely improved on our serve,” Shemanova said. “I would say our serve receive is pretty good. Getting those passes right to the setter, that’s where it all starts. And as outside hitters, we’re scoring a lot of balls.”

To understand why Syracuse seems to be poised on the threshold of a breakthrough, it is necessary to go back to last season.

The 2020 season was fraught with difficulties for many programs, Syracuse included. The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with schedules and rosters across the country, but the Orange were hit particularly hard.

“I don’t want to say it hurt us more than others,” Yelin said, “but it hurt us really bad.”

Leonid Yelin

Herein was the pitfall of having so many international players on the roster (Syracuse had six last season): Because of health and travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic, starters Shemanova and Markova were not able to get back into the United States from their native Russia in time for the spring portion of the split schedule.

Syracuse, which started in such a promising fashion with two fall wins over ACC powerhouse Pitt, slumped in the spring, dropping four of its final six matches.

Yelin, however, found a silver lining in the cloud.

“As bad as it sounds,” Yelin said, then repeated himself. “As bad as it sounds, covid kind of helped us, too. I was able to give a lot of playing time to young people who otherwise, not probably, they surely would not have had that playing time. And it really helped to develop them.”

The beneficiaries were freshman outside hitter Naomi Franco and sophomore middle Izzy Plummer. Both now are frequent starters for the Orange.

And there was a domino effect. Markova, who came to Syracuse as an outside hitter, had been playing middle because, Yelin said, the season before covid “we were so desperate for a middle.” Now, she’s back at her natural position and among the best in the ACC.

In addition to being deeper, the team, Shemanova said, has a better connection than in seasons past.

“We have a younger team, and everyone is more communicative with each other,” she said. “We don’t have this ‘seniority.’ My freshman year, it was really separated classes. Now it’s more like we all work together. Doesn’t matter who you are, freshman or a senior.

“This is a good group of talented people that have one passion, and we’re just going for it.”

Forming that type of chemistry with players from all over the world might seem like a difficult task. In addition to Karakasi, Shemanova and Markova, the roster comprises a third Russian (freshman Diana Akopova) and two players from Ukraine (fifth-year Yuliia Yastrub and junior Viktoriia Lokhmanchuk).

Then, of course, there is the assortment of Americans (nine in all).

Yelin, however, never has had a problem with players from different cultures getting along. He joked it would be tougher to get a group of adults to get along.

“Kids from everywhere are the same,” he said. “They’re working for the same things. They like the same things. They have so much more in common. They probably have some (differences), but it’s not like it divides them.

“It’s more how they grew up, when they talk to each other about growing up on the same cartoons and the same movies.”

Elena Karakasi/Michael J. Okoniewski, SU Athletic Communications)

Karakasi played for Greece’s U17 and U19 national teams. She said getting to travel to other countries and experience other cultures was “cool to see.” Even the styles of volleyball, she said, are different.

For the past three-plus years, she has had an even closer look at those cultures and styles. At Syracuse, she has played with teammates from America, Russia, Israel, Ukraine, Canada and Uzbekistan. That melting pot, she said, not only makes for an edifying personal experience, it “is what makes our team special.”

“I feel like we have a special bond because, outside the team, yes, everyone is different, but we all hang out together,” Karakasi said. “We cook dinner together, and we have food from the different cultures: Greek food, Russian food, American food. It’s always fun.

“We’re very well connected.”

And the American players often help the overseas players through bouts of homesickness. Yelin said though his U.S.-based players also must cope with the anxieties and uncertainties of being away from home for the first time, they can empathize with the extra challenges faced by foreign players. It’s one thing to be separated from family by state lines. It’s something altogether different to be separated by an ocean.

Yelin said a couple of his American players have had their international teammates as guests at their home during breaks, for example.

“They (the American players) are so good to the kids (who) they understand cannot have the same opportunity (to go home easily),” he said.

Wherever the Orange’s players go for semester or spring breaks this school year, they hope to have an extra item to take with them: an ACC championship ring. Getting one won’t be an easy task. Pitt (No. 4), Louisville (5) and Georgia Tech (18) are ranked in the latest AVCA poll. Unbeaten North Carolina was among the teams that received votes.

That hasn’t stopped Yelin’s players from talking about a title — even if no one outside their locker room is talking about it.

“I like it that way, to be honest,” Karakasi said. “I like to be the underdog. I look at the ranking, but it’s not everything. It doesn’t matter what people say. As long as we go on the court, give 100% effort and play good volleyball, I think that’s what matters.”

After three more non-conference matches this weekend at Mississippi State, against the home team, then Jackson State and South Alabama, Syracuse opens ACC play September 22 at Boston College. The Orange will face a tough stretch in mid-October when they visit Notre Dame and Louisville and play at home against North Carolina and Georgia Tech in a two-week span.

They kick off November by seeing Pitt on consecutive weekends. Syracuse will be looking for the same mojo that led to wins over Pitt last season to, if nothing else, build a resume that will impress the selection committee.

Karakasi, Shemanova and Yastrub are the only players on the current roster who were part of the team that made program history by qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. (Fifth-year Dana Gardner did not play during the 2018 season.) They have done their best to impart to the younger players what that experience was like and what it takes to get back there.

If those words are heeded, it could set up the Orange for success this season and beyond. Worst-case scenario, if none of the current seniors takes advantage of the NCAA’s “bonus year” given because of the pandemic’s interruptions in 2020, 11 players could return next season. Many of those underclassmen are key contributors now: Markova, Franco, Plummer, Casiano, Lokhmanchuk and libero Lauren Hogan, who was named to the 2020 ACC All-Freshman team.

But regardless of what next year holds for the seniors, they want to make the most of this year and recapture that feeling they had in 2018.

“No one has said that you can’t dream,” Shemanova said. “I really want to be on top of the ACC. But we have to take it one game at a time. You can dream big, but you have to do the little steps to achieve the goal.”

Added Karakasi: “I think we have the talent and hard work and the will to get to the tournament this year.”

Chuck Curti is a sports writer/copy editor for the Tribune-Review and TribLive.com, Greensburg, Pa.
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