Oct. 7, 2010
For the last two seasons, there have been no secrets across the collegiate volleyball circuit that Florida State University is a growing power in the sport. This season, that notion was made even clearer by the presence of four transfers from either Division I schools or junior colleges, which includes outside hitter Jekaterina Stepanova.
Stepanova, who grew up in the tiny city of Riga in the country of Latvia, has been a vital contribution for the Garnet and Gold in her first year. The talented junior, however, originally did not have the Seminoles on her radar as she was highly sought by other top-notch programs. But the persistence of a convincing coaching staff in head coach Chris Poole, associate head coach Holly Watts and assistant coach Gokhan Yilmaz showed her something that goes beyond just playing volleyball.
“It was a very hard decision,” Stepanova recalled. “I had my top five schools that were really good with education programs and sport programs. C.P., Gokhan and Holly showed this interest in me and really cared even though I told them I was not interested (at the time). They still fought and showed their care and answered immediately on their emails if I asked questions.
“It showed they were going to care for me while I was here. I didn’t even think about Florida State, but the coaches really changed my mind. I will never look back and say, `Oh my God, I should have gone to that school.’ I’m really proud I chose this school and I really like it here so far.”
The coaching staff certainly shares her feelings, as Stepanova has showed off her high-flying ability as one of the team’s top outside hitters. She broke ground in FSU’s five-set win over Kansas State on Sept. 10, when she recorded 20 kills and 17 digs at the Kentucky Invitational. She culminated that weekend in Lexington as a member of the All-Tournament Team, helping the Seminoles to three key wins against KSU, nationally-ranked Kentucky and Virginia Commonwealth.
It was only a season ago when Stepanova was starring with Missouri State-West Plains, a junior college in the southern part of the Show-me state. Her transition to a bigger school has been quite a whirlwind, but she has adjusted to Tallahassee just fine thanks to the help of her teammates.
“My teammates are very friendly,” Stepanova said. “I noticed that on the visit. They were open, they didn’t hide anything. They told me the truth that practices are really hard and the workouts are hard. You expected what you’re going to do here. It’s a big city, and I came from a small college in a small town. Here you need the help and support of your teammates. They help you outside the court and on the court.”
Stepanova has shown that her talents stretch beyond just the volleyball court. As an international standout for the Seminoles, she speaks three languages in Latvian, Russian and English. Having been in the United States now for three years, the International Studies major remembers how difficult it was trying to learn the English language, even though she had some experience in her own country.
“I started learning English in second grade. It was so weird, because I was the bad student at the time. If I was not interested in something, I wasn’t going to pay attention,” Stepanova said with a laugh. “I never thought I’d find someone who was going to speak English with me because in the past I didn’t know I was going to the United States. I learned English for seven years in my school. Coming here, it’s so different with their accents, slang and they talk so fast.”
The versatile performer admits she does miss certain things in Latvia, especially the cooler weather that is the opposite of hot and humid Tallahassee. However, the country has been hit hard by the global financial crisis that spanned the last couple of years, with severe inflation and a large trade deficit forcing Latvia and much of its surrounding neighbors to take a large economic dive.
“Right now, a lot of people are losing their jobs in Latvia and Russia. People are migrating from the country and going to places like England, Germany and Holland because they usually have the jobs,” Stepanova said hesitantly. “It’s pretty crazy. At first I thought I’d go to the United States, get an education and come back to Latvia, but now that’s under question.”
Regardless of Latvia’s tough economic climate, which hopefully is cyclical considering it was one of the fastest-growing nations in Europe during the early 2000’s, Stepanova knows it is always worth going back to in order to see her family. She considers her mother her biggest supporter, and believes it was one of the toughest things she’s ever had to do in leaving her behind when she chose to come to the United States.
“It was very hard decision to come here because I knew my mom was living by herself and she gave me everything to reach these goals,” Stepanova said. “My parents were proud that I got the support center to go to the United States and learn the language, the culture and get an education and play this sport. It became a part of my life. It was hard but it was good at the same time.”
Stepanova, who hopes to someday learn another language and work in the communications field, now finds herself with a secondary support system at FSU. With her infectious personality and superior on-court skills, Stepanova has the ability to use her vast array of talents and continue molding the FSU volleyball brand into what many expect it to become – A national power.