The Good Word | By Jon Cooper
A big part of the college experience is learning things about yourself that you might never have known, sometimes doing things you'd never thought you were capable.
Senior outside hitter Gabriela Stavnetchei is having such a learning season in 2017. The 5-foot-10 native of Curitiba, Brazil, had been something of a silent partner her first three years, barely seeing the floor her first two seasons, before finishing second on the team in kills and kills per set last season.
But heading into her senior season, and with Teegan Van Gunst graduated, Stavnetchei was thrust into the role of carrying the offense. She knew what she had to do, even if she wasn't necessarily sure how she'd do it.
"As an outside we get a lot of balls and I had to be the one that a lot of times had to terminate, just as Teegan did last year," said Stavnetchei. "I've been getting ready for this. Last year I did take up a bigger role on the team and I was getting my kills there. This year I knew that I would have to step up my game a little bit. In the beginning I was a little more nervous, going to the court knowing I have to do that. But now I'm used to it and I feel like I can do it. I'm confident enough in myself and my team that I'm going to be able to go up there and do my job well."
Stavnetchei has been doing her job as well as anybody in the ACC. She heads into Friday night's Halloween match against Duke at O'Keefe Gym, leading the ACC in kills (315, a category she's led since Sept. 17), ranking second in attacks (931) and attacks per set (12.25, 15th in the nation), third in kills per set (4.14) and fourth in points per set (4.30).
Those are big numbers from someone who's anything but big -- her lithe 5-10 frame makes her the smallest of Tech's outside hitters (freshman Dominique Washington also is 5-10) -- and shows great determination in adapting to teams that have focused their defensive game plans on her.
She's prepared for this, as well.
"I think that the way we train, we try to get our players to be more than one-dimensional so that when the situation happens they have other ways to score and other shots to hit and other things to do," said head coach Michelle Collier. "Understanding the game, being a little patient, understanding that you're not going to get some clean swings as much as you would like and not letting that affect your intensity and how hard you're playing, your confidence. You just have to be `next ball' focused and understand that a lot of times you're going to have to be patient through some things because teams are kind of preparing and their goal is to slow you down before anything else. Gabi's getting more comfortable doing some different things with the ball and also just accepting her role a little bit and understanding that she's not going to get any breaks."
Stavnetchei not only has thrived but also has turned her potential dead end into a highway of opportunity for the team.
"Last year was easier for me because there was no one really trying to stop me. They were focusing on other players," she said. "This year, I have that. They know exactly what my best shots are, my tendencies, and they try to stop that but I just keep working on trying to find new shots and trying to do different stuff so that makes it a little bit harder to stop me. It makes it way harder for me to play but it's cool that they have to worry so much about me."
Familiarity didn't help Syracuse last Friday. Held to 14 kills and eight digs in Tech's 3-0 defeat on Oct.8 in central New York, Stavnetchei turned the tables, putting away a career-best 28 kills and completing her eighth double-double of the season with 14 digs as the Tech squeezed the Orange, 3-1. Making it sweeter was that the game was part of Homecoming Weekend.
"That was really cool," said Collier. "She put up an awesome match against a really good blocking team that we'd just played a couple of weeks ago and she struggled against them there. So it was great to see her just being able to step up and grow in that match. For the alumni, that was awesome. We actually had some people that watched us play earlier in the season and then watched us play on Friday and they were like, `Wow!'"
Adding to Stavnetchei's wow-factor is that she's more than just a big hitter. She's among Jackets' leaders with 217 digs, 2.86 per set (both second on the team) and 12 service aces (third). Being an all-around player is part of an all-around commitment physically.
"I think the biggest thing is my physical strength," said Stavnetchei. "In Brazil I didn't really work in the gym or running-wise. Since I got here I've gotten so much better in that part of my game -- just being more physical, more athletic, being able to jump higher, to reach higher, just being more athletic. Hitting-wise I'm jumping way higher, getting the ball way higher. I think my back row has improved a lot. I'm digging more balls and passing with more confidence. This year, I've been working on just pursuing more balls, being ready, being stopped and just going for it. That's definitely something we've been focusing on. So I'm glad that that's showing up in the games."
What's also showing up is her growth as a leader.
Stavnetchei's never been very vocal, but, she's gotten more so, since that was what the job description calls for.
"I knew that I was going to have to do that in being a senior and one of the leaders on the team," she said. "I think I definitely have gotten so much better on that. Of course, there's always room for improvement but I think I'm doing a pretty good job at it."
Collier credits Stavnetchei for recognizing the need for that role and addressing it.
"That's something that's really outside her comfort zone," she said. "She doesn't celebrate. She's not crazy with her celebrations and stuff. She's a very consistent kid when it comes to her personality on the court but we do need that from our players. We need a little more energy, we need a little more intensity. It's been really cool to see her commitment to doing something that she's not very comfortable doing and buying in and letting this experience grow her as a person and as a player but also trying to do something that's best for the team. I'm very proud of what she's been accomplishing with that."
Stavnetchei may be louder but she's still the same leader by example for the younger players.
"I really enjoy that," she said. "I didn't play my freshman and sophomore years here so I can set an example that if you play hard and keep pushing you're going to get there. Also, not being really tall, I think that gives a lot of younger kids the possibility that they don't have to be the tallest kid out there, that they can still play volleyball at a high level, they can do other things, they can jump. There is still a place for them on the court."
Stavnetchei will be important for the Yellow Jackets as they try to scale the mountain that is the rest of the ACC. They're in a three-way tie for eighth with Duke and Florida State, but also still have plenty of matches against teams ahead of them -- they still host Pittsburgh, Miami and Florida State and visit North Carolina and NC State. They also visit Virginia and Virginia Tech and host Clemson, which Tech already swept.
"I think for us, the biggest thing is just being confident," she said. "We are a great team and whenever we play well it's really hard to stop us. So for us it's just stay confident that we can get there because that is our goal, is to go to the NCAA Tournament, and I think we can. We just have to stay focused, just keep working hard and just stay together."