Another first for St. John’s volleyball

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Three Words: “Queens, New York.”
That’s all it took for the Taffner Field House to explode Sunday night.
After it was announced on the big screen, the shrieks and cries of joy could be heard across Union Turnpike and down Utopia Parkway.
Those three words - “music to my ears,” St. John’s volleyball coach Joanne Persico-Smith said - on ESPN U’s NCAA tournament Selection Show followed by “St. John’s” and “12th seed” out of 64 teams were extremely unlikely 14 years ago. Actually, it was near impossible.
“It’s surreal,” Persico-Smith said. “It’s a dream come true. We feel really blessed.”
The No. 18 Red Storm will host LIU-Brooklyn in the opening round on their Jamaica campus Friday at 8 p.m. The winner meets whoever prevails between Delaware and Princeton Saturday night in the second round.
When Persico-Smith left her cushy job as an advertising executive at Cablevision to coach St. John’s volleyball - then merely a club team - in 1994, such an accomplishment was light years away.
The first season on the varsity level, the Red Storm - then the Redmen - won no league games. However, they kept on building and recruiting, winning the Big East regular-season crown last fall. A loss in the Big East postseason tournament hurt the cause, but the program still garnered an at-large bid to their first NCAA tournament berth in school history. They advanced to the second round before losing in five games to No. 22 Minnesota, who would eventually fall to Nebraska, the eventual national champion, in five games, too.
They came back this year with a similar team, adding outside hitter Dana DeMayo and setter Casie Brooks to replace the two departed seniors. Enjoying an equally impressive regular season, St. John’s won an unprecedented second consecutive division title. Then, St. John’s did the unlikely - beating Louisville in the final, 30-24, 30-14, 30-26, after the Cardinals swept them earlier in the season to finish a program-best 31-3 campaign.
“We just wanted to capitalize off last year and come on strong and defend our regular-season title,” senior outside hitter Latoya Blunt said. “We didn’t think we’d actually win the Big East championship along the way.”
This year’s team isn’t a Cinderella story. It features the Big East Player of the Year in middle hitter Hui Ping Huang; two-time Big East Libero of the Year, junior Lena Yee; senior setter Wioleta Leszczynska, who’s 14.28 assists per game were second best in the nation and earned Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors; and Blunt, an All-Big East honoree.
Quite an eclectic group considering Huang is from China; Leszczynska is Polish; Yee hails from Hawaii; and Blunt is a west-coaster from California, where volleyball is king.
“Our team reflects our school, which is so diverse, which reflects our city, which is so diverse,” Persico-Smith said. “We want kids that want to come to St. John’s, who want to work hard. We don’t care where they come from if they want to play volleyball.”
Most of the top recruits came from abroad, thanks to the connections in Russia and China, respectively, by assistant coaches Mario Treibit and Li Chen. A former star at Syracuse and frequent Empire State Games participant, Persico-Smith has been involved in the sport for 30 years, so she had considerable reach, too.
Recruiting in the states was difficult at first. When Blunt, for instance, chose St. John’s, many of her volleyball friends and coaches didn’t understand the decision. “Everyone was like, ‘you’re going to St. John’s? Do they have a volleyball team?” she recalled.
They know now. And even more will find out this weekend when Carnesecca Arena hosts the NCAA tournament.
“We’re putting volleyball on the map,” Blunt said, “so when people are thinking about college they may want to come to St. John’s to play volleyball.”
“It’s fantastic,” Persico-Smith said. “Now we have to take care of business.”