Sunday, September 7, 2003

McNick product finds place at UC

Overseas volleyball trip sealed deal

By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Maria Pongonis didn't know it, but her two-week spring stint in the Czech Republic was an impromptu initiation to a University of Cincinnati volleyball career.

Pongonis, a McNicholas grad and former Ohio State player, was invited to play for UC coach Reed Sunahara on a USA Select Team with Bearcat standout Julie DuPont and 11 fellow college phenoms May 8-18.

"I didn't get to play all spring and I wanted to get my hands on a ball," said Pongonis, an outside hitter who started three matches as a Buckeyes freshman before succumbing to a season-ending stress fracture in her right foot.

Before she finished playing against nine countries' national teams in the European Spring Cup in Brno, Pongonis knew she wanted to return to Cincinnati for good.

And Sunahara couldn't have been more thrilled.

"We knew how good a player she was, because we recruited her," Sunahara said. "It was a good thing (Pongonis and DuPont) got to know each other in the tournament, because they're the two main outside hitters in our program."

Pongonis knew she was leaving Ohio State by the spring but hadn't decided where to transfer until after the Czech excursion. While there, the USA Select Team's record (2-5) "wasn't so good," but Pongonis found the different volleyball culture challenging.

"The game is definitely different. It's a lot more powerful, but slower. Here it's about finesse; there it's about brute strength," Pongonis said.

The trip was educational for all three Bearcats, including Sunahara. He said logistical differences - shorter games, fewer substitutions, potent back row attacks - set the European teams apart from the Americans.

DuPont said the experience was beneficial from a volleyball standpoint, but the vacation's fringe benefits were just as good.

"We got to see a lot of artwork in churches you don't see nowadays and lots of statues and artisans in Prague," DuPont said.

Meeting Pongonis was a "cool coincidence," DuPont said.

But vacation is over for the Bearcats, who must replace two of their most awarded players in school history while seeking a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Graduated outside hitter Trish Ladusaw and middle blocker Bonita Wise led the Bearcats to a 98-34 record over the last four years.

DuPont is the school's all-time leader in kills per game (4.2) and a member of the 1,000 career kill club. She and fourth-year setter Laura Lauder are co-captains.

Newcomers will be key to rebuilding, Sunahara said, and Pongonis is an added asset. The sophomore transfer, who delivered 27 kills in her first three UC matches, is just happy to be home.

"I love it here," she said. "I think it's going to be a lot of fun."


• Wide receiver Steve Banks (Western Hills) caught two touchdown passes Aug. 30 in Lackawanna College's 39-14 defeat of SUNY Canton.

• College of Mount St. Joseph junior right-side hitter Tammi Toney (Harrison) has been named Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Week. Toney had 51 kills, 39 digs, 10 blocks and four aces for ninth-ranked Mount volleyball team in its season-opening two-day tournament. In addition, Toney had a 41.7

hitting percentage.

• Miami junior David Mitchell was named the Mid-American Conference Men's Runner of the Week after winning the Flyer 5K Challenge in Kettering Aug. 30.

• Cincinnati State Technical and Community College's women's soccer team has been ranked 14th in the nation in the junior college Division I ratings of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. The Lady Surge play Cincinnati Select at 1 p.m. today at the Miami Whitewater soccer complex.



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