Coming off the best season in terms of wins and advancement in the NCAA Tournament in coach Jen Greeny’s eight-year tenure, Washington State volleyball needed reinforcements.
Lots of them. So the Cougars expanded their recruiting horizons.
“We knew we needed so many players to replace the class of six that graduated,” Greeny said. “To get the higher-caliber kids we wanted and that many of them, we thought both domestically and internationally was the way to go.”
The Cougars’ seven-player freshman class included customary fertile recruiting grounds in Texas and California, but WSU also ventured to Europe and found Pia Timmer, outside hitter from Emlichheim, Germany; Magda Jehlárová, middle blocker from Prerov, Czech Republic; and Weronika Wojdyla, outside hitter from Kraków, Poland. Those three joined senior middle blocker Jocelyn Urias, from Tijuana, Mexico.
The Cougars, coming off a 23-win season and a trip to the Sweet 16, are off to an 11-1 start, but the competition level rises with their Pac-12 opener Wednesday against No. 8 Washington. Six Pac-12 teams are ranked, including defending national champion Stanford at No. 1, and WSU and Colorado are just outside the top 25.
Greeny has guided the Cougars back to prominence with three straight NCAA Tournament trips and last year’s Sweet 16 appearance. International imports figure to be a key part of the equation as WSU tries to remain among the elite nationally.
Timmer leads the Cougars with 108 kills, followed by Jehlárová’s 81 and Urias’ 79. Jehlárová carries a .356 hitting percentage and she is first in blocks with 61. Wojdyla is scheduled to redshirt.
Urias, who has several years of experience on Mexico’s junior national teams, was named honorable mention AVCA All-American last season.
Two years ago, Timmer and Jehlárová had never heard of Washington State University.
“It was about two years ago I was at the German championships and Burdette (Jen’s husband and WSU associate head coach) was there and he texted me afterward,” Timmer said. “At first, I had no idea what it was about and what he wanted. The first time, I didn’t text him because I was like, ‘Who is that?’
“But I did some research and thought about what I wanted to do. I wanted to keep playing volleyball, but I wanted to be academically prepared for my future.”
A similar process unfolded for Jehlárová.
“Burdette reached out to me because I was on the (Czech Republic) U19 national team,” she said. “Then I was at a tournament in Italy for European Championships qualifying and Jen and (assistant coach) Shannon (Hunt) went to see me and decided they’d like to recruit me.”
They weren’t alone. Both players had interest from other U.S. schools as well as the option of playing professionally in their home countries.
Both were willing to travel roughly 5,000 miles away from their families to chase their dreams.
“I always wanted to go to the U.S. as a child,” Timmer said. “There were so many movies about it and it was my little dream to go to the U.S., but I thought it was for vacation. I really wanted to experience something new and get out of my hometown and experience a new country, a new language. It’s pretty cool.”
The transition has been easier because both are comfortable speaking English. Pullman is a smaller than Jehlárová’s hometown of Prerov, but the climates are similar.
Emlichheim, located near the German-Dutch border, is small and “the landscape is quite different,” Timmer said. “We’re a flat landscape. The weather is different and the food is maybe a little different, but our food from the dining hall is pretty good.”
Arizona State tops the Pac-12 with six international players, including two from Serbia. ASU head coach Sanja Tomasevic is a Serbian native. WSU is next with four international players. The remaining 10 schools have 12 combined, including USC’s Emilia Weske, who played with and against Timmer back in Germany.
“I would say it’s not as common (recruiting internationally) as basketball,” Greeny said. “I know in Europe especially, it’s such a different system where university is separate from pro teams. In a lot of countries they can go to school for free or little cost and then play professionally, so the draw to come to the U.S. isn’t what it used to be.”
Jehlárová and Timmer didn’t anticipate having major roles so soon, but they’re part of WSU’s overall youth movement. Of the team’s top seven in kills, four are true freshmen, one is a redshirt freshman and one is a redshirt sophomore. Redshirt freshman setter Hannah Pukis leads in assists.
“European style of volleyball is kind of different,” Jehlárová said, “so I didn’t know how well and how fast I would adapt.”
Greeny had another linguistic curveball waiting for the newcomers. Play calls are made in Farsi, a tradition that dates back to when Greeny played at WSU for head coach Cindy Fredrick and husband/assistant Mashallah ‘Farokh’ Farokhmanesh.
“So to make it super complicated we call our offense in Farsi,” Greeny cracked. “That’s how my brain works, because I was with Cindy and Farokh for eight years (as a player and assistant).”
Jehlárová and Timmer have handled it seamlessly on the volleyball court and on campus.
“It’s been great, probably better than I expected,” Jehlárová said. “My coaches are great, teammates are great and I really like the school and the environment. I would definitely recommend it.”
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