Joanne Persico-Smith probably never expected to be saying the things she did Tuesday afternoon.
Before the season, Persico-Smith, the St. John’s volleyball coach, had high hopes for her team. But she knew, realistically, that this team wasn’t the most talented and lost its best player, Jackie Ahlers, because of personal reasons.
Big East coaches ranked the Red Storm 14th out of 15 schools in the annual preseason poll.
The season of 2003, with Ahlers and seniors Rosalyn Dang and Robyn Kurasaki leading the way to a record 26-win season, seemed very far away.
So, why did Persico-Smith utter the following words?
“This team is better than 2003,” said the coach, sitting on a couch in her Carnesecca Arena office. “I hesitate saying that because I had Robyn and Rosalyn. They believe their team is the best-But I’m not a BSer. I’m going to tell you that this team is better.”
She’s absolutely right. And she should know. Persico-Smith is the only coach St. John’s volleyball has ever had in its 12-year history.
The same team that was chosen to finish next to last in the conference is coming off its first Big East Tournament since 1996. Had St. John’s (23-9, 9-6) beaten Cincinnati in the first round of the tourney, it would have gotten serious consideration as a NCAA Tournament team.
How did Persico-Smith take a team that was 1-9 in the Big East last season – and lost a star player – to the fifth-seed in the Big East Tournament?
It might seem cliched, but it was all about balance.
“We went into the season saying, ‘Let’s be balanced,'” Persico-Smith said. “We had the people in place that could be balanced. Sometimes you want to be balanced, but if you have Marcus Hatten (former St. John’s men’s basketball star), you’re going to [focus your strategy on] Marcus Hatten.”
Ahlers, a senior this year, was
volleyball’s Marcus Hatten the past three seasons. While Kurasaki and Dang were leading the team emotionally and physically in 2003, Ahlers was setting a Big East single-season record in kills (608).
But evidently, the offensive focus on Ahlers stunted the young team’s growth. Balance – and another former All-America honorable mention – is what allowed the team to gel.
Shameka Mitchell, a transfer graduate student from South Florida (where she was an All-American honorable mention as a junior), was the team’s co-captain and undisputed leader this season.
Persico-Smith saw how well Mitchell worked with the team’s younger players and she’s hoping that some of Mitchell’s leadership will rub off on the team for next year and allow them to lead themselves.
“And if not I’ll hold a big picture of Shameka up [for inspiration],” said Persico-Smith, with a laugh.
Nah, all she’ll have to hold up is a banner that says “ST. JOHN’S VOLLEYBALL, BIG EAST TOURNAMENT 2005.” And maybe the huge trophy the team won after beating Hofstra this year for the first time in the Queens-Nassau Cup, the series Persico-Smith helped to found against the Long Island school.
Persico-Smith said that this season reminds her a lot of her second season here. In 1995, the team was also ranked low by Big East coaches. St. John’s was 0-10 in 1994, its first year in the conference. Persico-Smith’s team responded by going 7-4 and came in fifth, good enough for a Big East Tournament spot. It made the tournament again in 1996 and that was the last time until this year St. John’s earned a berth.
Funny how history repeats itself, huh?
“When you’re young you feel like it’s going to be like this every year,” Persico-Smith said. “You hear Allen Iverson say, ‘I thought I’d have some rings by now.’ I thought we’d have some rings by now too.”
She may not have much longer to wait with this group.