It’s been a grueling nonconference schedule for the AU women’s volleyball team, complete with nail-biting victories and ever-so-close defeats. Over the weekend, the Eagles dropped two tough contests in Milwaukee to Wisconsin and Marquette, and heading into Wednesday’s final nonconference game against Howard, the team’s record sits at 5-6. But that mark doesn’t tell the whole story.
On Sept. 13, the Eagles lost a heartbreaking 3-2 decision to No. 22 Long Beach State. While the defeat certainly was disappointing, Coach Barry Goldberg said his players could take heart in the fact that it marked the first time AU had taken a top-25 team to a fifth game.
“At the beginning of the year we talked about trying to get one of these top 25 teams, because we’ve been on the cusp quite a few times,” Goldberg said. “It was hard fought. It’s the first time we’ve come that close with a team that has this kind of national prominence. It’s a good sign, but it doesn’t mean anything about how good we’re going to do in the conference.”
As usual, AU has been led this year by all-everything senior star Rubena Sukaj, who recorded 15 kills in a victory over Dartmouth Sept. 13 to set a new Patriot League record for career aces. For her efforts, Sukaj was named Patriot League Baden Player of the Week. She followed up that performance by registering 16 kills against Wisconsin to set the AU all-time record in that category. The fact that she can do it all is no secret.
But Sukaj isn’t the only Eagle to have earned accolades this season. On Sept. 15, freshman Rebecca Heath was named Patriot League Rookie of the Week. The award highlighted what Goldberg and Heath’s teammates already knew: the 5-foot-11 Chicago native already is a key contributor. Need more proof? On Sept. 22, Heath won the award again.
“She’s a great student, and she comes from one of the best club teams in the country,” Goldberg said. “One of the things that makes her so interesting is she can really perform all the skills. She can receive the serve very well, her hands are good, she plays good defense in the back row, she can spike the ball, she can block the ball, and she serves very well. She’s a well rounded player. For a team like ours that has a couple of really tall players that can block, and one big Albanian girl that can blast the ball real well, an all-around player is an important cog. She’s fit in real well.”
Heath grew up playing basketball and volleyball, and loved the opportunity sports provided to rid herself of stress.
“Volleyball is a great way to blow off steam,” she said. “I played basketball, but when you slam the ball down you get a technical foul. In volleyball, you get points.”
Looking for a strong academic institution on the East Coast with a winning volleyball program, Heath visited AU and participated in Goldberg’s summer volleyball camp. She immediately was sold.
“I definitely liked all the girls, and I liked Barry’s attitude toward balancing school and athletics,” said Heath, who plans to major in anthropology and minor in biology.
Unlike many of her former teammates at Sports Performance, the elite Chicago-based club team she played for in high school, Heath has gotten plenty of playing time right off the bat in her college career.
“She was more prepared than the normal student-athlete that might come in here,” Goldberg said. “For being as young as she is, she’s stepped right in and done a fine job.”
Despite the fact that the “blockers are bigger, the sets are higher, and the girls are taller,” Heath has played with confidence unusual for a freshman. Most importantly, she’s been enjoying herself.
“[Long Beach State] was a fun match because we were matched up well against each other,” she said. “We were a much bigger team, but they were really fast. It was frustrating to lose, because it was so close. We didn’t show up the first game, but once we were not intimidated by the name on their jersey and we played our game, we played a lot better. We have to take advantage of playing those tough teams when we get into the conference.”