Standing on the light beige wood of the glossy volleyball court, more than a dozen teammates face each other through the net with their hands placed above their protected knees.
Behind them, lining the north and south walls of the James L. Knight Sports Complex, hang posters of the athletes with photographs blown up bigger than life. Their smiles beam down on all 16 players of the University of Miami women’s volleyball team as they drip sweat, high five each other and, following practice drill orders, sometimes throw themselves on the ground when their teammates score against them.
“They’re practicing laying out for the ball,” assistant trainer Jason Noonan explains. “It’s a punishment thing.” He sits in a folding chair against the wall beside a large black bag, ready to pop up should anyone suffer an injury.
Towering over many of the players, a young woman with a thickly braided ponytail secured with a pink hair band rolls up the sleeves of her T-shirt. She focuses her narrowing green eyes on the ball and when she serves, she jumps.
“That one is Olga,” said Simona Latino, head athletic trainer. “She stars when she plays. She’s the only girl that jump-serves, and jump-serves are pretty difficult.”
Olga Strantzali, who lived in Thessaloniki, Greece until she began college at UCLA last year, transferred to the University of Miami to play on the volleyball team as a sophomore.
“My dad is a volleyball coach, so we made this decision together,” Strantzali said. “I was so excited to be here.”
Strantzali got her start when she was just five years old. She said that in Greece, the teams work with children “because they are the future,” and that all of the professional teams in Division I have youth teams. One of her earliest memories is of her father telling her to keep her elbows straight. She said that he was always trying to make her better and always supporting her.
At 6-foot-1, Strantzali has no trouble hitting the ball over the net. She was named Best Outside Hitter in 2013 while playing with the Greek national team Iraklis Thessaloniki and was the top scorer and server in the 2013 championships. She was just 12 years old when she joined and has played with the team for five years. At the Hellenic College of Thessaloniki in Thermi, Thessaloniki, she helped her high school make it to three national school championships.
“Obviously only good players represent their country, so she is very physically gifted and very talented,” said David Villavicencio, assistant director of communications. “We’re very lucky to have her.”
On the court, teamwork is everything, and Strantzali said her teammates are like family. They spend three to four hours together each day and usually practice from 2-5 p.m. – often longer on weight-lifting days. The season runs from August to December, so the women travel at least twice a month. The team’s 2015 season came to an end last Thursday when the team lost 3-0 to Iowa State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The Hurricanes finished the year 21-10 overall and 14-6 in the competitive ACC.
Villavicencio believes that Strantzali’s open and welcoming attitude toward everyone made the transition easy. He notices in Strantzali what he calls “a quiet confidence.”
“She just goes about her business and does her thing. A lot of times when you’re as good as she is, you tend to have a ‘look at me’ and ‘hey, I’m over here’ attitude. She’s not like that. She treats everyone great.”
Strantzali made her Miami debut in August with a three-set victory over Illinois State. She earned two ACC Player of the Week awards in her first season as a Hurricane.