With the 2023 season underway, the NIVC looks at some of the programs off to a notable start as we track the depth and competitive excellence found throughout D-I volleyball.
by Kyle Koso
As the only head coach to ever hold the job for the St. John’s volleyball program, Joanne Persico could be excused for expressing a bit of world-weariness in tone and temperament when it comes to her tasks.
But 30 years in, the fire and faith that brought the Red Storm squad to life seems no less profound or productive as Persico puts her stamp on another impressive season for the team out of the university in Queens, NY. Fueled by a young roster packed with international players who have worked through some early adversities, St. John’s sits at 13-5 overall (5-1 in the challenging territory of the Big East) and can make another statement this weekend with matches at home versus DePaul (10-7, 3-3) and year in, year out powerhouse Marquette (10-7, 6-0).
The upbeat mood in mid-October was hardly guaranteed earlier in the year as Persico worked through some roster issues, and spirits were dampened by off-court stress that led to back-to-back 3-1 non-conference losses to Arkansas and Buffalo. But the team’s ability to rebound rang out loud and clear with a 3-0 sweep at Xavier, which was picked to finish ahead of the Red Storm in the preseason poll.
“I’ve spent my time building team culture; at this stage of my career, when you add one person, it’s not just that person but that person times however many are on the team bus,” said Persico, who has 545 victories all-time and 12 20-win seasons in her resume. “I take that seriously and won’t add player just to do it. It’s my concern that the women here leave with as many tools in their toolbox as possible. When we played Arkansas and Buffalo, there were some team challenges, getting used our captains and the dynamics of new people. That was a bit of a tough day off the court, and how we handled that catapulted us to where we are today, in the top of the conference, but of course with more to do.”
No doubt, the win against a solid Xavier unit (11-6, 4-2) gave Persico evidence that this year’s group had more than a little resilience.
“That’s a result that only happens with teamwork and the ability to be versatile,” she said. “You can say, ‘I’m an outside hitter’ but I need you at DS today. You’re a right side, well somebody got hurt so you have to play the outside pin today. The opportunity to learn and be able to expand your role with an open mind … not everyone can do that, but we try to teach volleyball skills.”
Those lessons sometimes require hurdling over language barriers, as St. John’s does a lot of its work with an international roster. This year there are student athletes hailing from Costa Rica, Italy and Poland who were drawn to New York City just like millions of others, attracted by the energy and opportunity.
“It just evolved from the early years here. I started the program in 1994 and had some girls from California, which was the volleyball hub … with the limited resources we had, I just turned to Europe,” Persico said. “I would go after 10 players, they were all good, and whoever wanted to come I would take. I had room for two, they were Europeans, and they said they wanted to come to New York. We have a terrific melting pot of course, and the most cultural diversity of any county, borough, anyplace in the world here in Queens. The program reflects the university, and really, the city. They come from different places, and we have different styles on how we play volleyball. But we have commonalities, our values and love for the teammates and university.”
At the center of St. John’s plans on the court is junior setter Wiktoria Kowalczyk, an impressive sight at 6-foot-4 who’s 597 assists on the year. She’s drilled into her work and improved her footwork and defensive approach, while also becoming arguably the team’s best server. Eleonora Tosi (one of two players Persico had to recruit through video chat because of COVID’s disruptions) plays multiple positions and offers the kind of flexibility the Red Storm mandates. Freshman Rashanny Solano Smith has been a revelation on the back line and has played every set of the 2023 campaign, leading the group in digs with 262.
Offensively, two players get the majority of swings — sophomore Erin Jones leads in kills with 235 and junior Giorgia Walther has 199.
One of the facts of life playing in the Big East is taking on Creighton and Marquette every year, programs that are NCAA Tournament staples and spend most of their seasons comfortably ranked in the Top 25. But rather than stew in anxiety about that trend, Persico chooses to embrace the challenge (budget priorities are simply handled differently at different schools) and let what’s best for her roster guide her energies.
“We are running our own race – I didn’t stay here 30 years worrying about what was happening on the other side of the fence. I try to take care of my own backyard and my program with what I’ve been given,” she said. “We know those teams are the perennial frontrunners, and we know they lead the Big East year in and year out. They have tremendous coaches and have been great to work with and compete against. Your competition makes you better, your adversary is your friend, and they will push us to compete at a high level when we meet.
“Through hard work and creativity, I have been fortunate to win six (conference) titles here, so we have been able to do well. We’re grateful for those teams and those coaches and the level of competition they bring to the gym. They help the Big East stay recognized.”
ON THE NIVC – St. John’s has played in the postseason NIVC on two occasions, and Persico is a huge proponent of the event.
“We haven’t had the opportunity to play in an NIT like women’s basketball, and we’ve had many years we could have qualified for something like that. We have been so excited and grateful to be part of the NIVC – in 2018, our athletic director graciously supported us playing (in the NIVC) and we got a great experience at Georgia Tech. The next year we won a Big East title. We think the NIVC catapulted us, got us that postseason experience, let us practice longer … the next year we knock off No. 10 and No. 11 in the country.
“Last year, we get the opportunity, win in the first round, then play at Boston College. We get knocked off, but I’m in contact with them from there on and they win it – we couldn’t be more proud to see an East Coast team suceed. And for us this year, our tight group of 12 players can use last year’s NIVC to help us be successful, and I think it’s all connected.”