UND volleyball fueled by Serbian connection
UND seniors Tamara Merseli and Teodora Tepavac grew up two hours away from each other in Serbia, but the two never met until they took a 17-hour plane ride to the United States to play Division I volleyball.
Now, their close relationship helps them deal with living so far from home. And, now comfortable in Grand Forks, the pair's play on the court has UND enjoying one of its best seasons in program history.
"It's really important," Merseli said of having Tepavac as a roommate. "My freshman year, I had no Serbian friends. Having her going through the same experiences I do, it's so good."
UND's Serbian volleyball flavor is mostly by coincidence, although once Fighting Hawks coach Mark Pryor landed a commitment from Merseli, he sold Tepavac on the Serbian connection.
But Pryor stumbled upon both players as recruits after looking at the junior college All-American list, specifically the freshmen on the list.
Merseli, who has a twin sister playing Division I volleyball at the University of Evansville in Indiana, attended Indian Hills Community College in Iowa and Tepavac went to Northwest Community College in Wyoming.
Both players came to the United States because American volleyball offers the opportunity to play a sport and go to school. The club teams in Serbia aren't associated with universities.
"I love everything about UND," Merseli said. "I love the facilities and team atmosphere. That's a huge part of why I decided to come here."
The parents of Merseli and Tepavac have never seen their kids play college volleyball in person, but both players have a strong support system back home.
With a seven-hour time difference between Grand Forks and Serbia, the Merselis and Tepavacs watch every match, even if that means tuning in at 3 a.m.
"Before every game, they message me 'good luck,'" Tepavac said. "I always have to reply to them."
Merseli and Tepavac still have plenty of postgame love at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center, even though their parents aren't able to come to Grand Forks.
That's because while walking through the Columbia Mall last year, the two UND Serbian players overhead a family speaking their native language.
Merseli and Tepavac struck up a conversation, then a friendship. Now, those families—the girls estimate up to 15 families from the general Serbia or Bosnia areas—come to the Betty to watch volleyball.
"They've been huge supporters," Merseli said. "It's nice to have someone hug you after a game, whether you played good or bad. Having someone from your own culture, it's a huge part of moral support."
Pryor said Serbia is known for quality volleyball. The kids start playing at a younger age than America, he said.
Pryor also said coaches are typically pretty stern.
"There are a lot of people who think I'm kind of tough, but Tam and Teo are like, "No, he's cake,' " Pryor said. "'He'd fit right in in Serbia.' I don't know if that's a compliment or not."
UND, fresh off the program's first trip to the NCAA tournament last year, is off to a 19-4 start this season, with big contributions from the Serbians.
Merseli was the Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year last year and was named to the all-league first team and all-tournament team. She has 230 kills this year, ranking second on the team.
Tepavac shines in the back row, where she is tied for second on the team with Merseli with 296 digs.
"They understand the game," Pryor said. "Their volleyball IQ allows them to make better reads. Sticking both of them in the spots we have them in right now has really helped us out."
• When: Friday, 8 p.m.
• Where: Bozeman
• Records: UND 4-2 Big Sky, 19-4 overall; Montana 2-4 Big Sky, 6-9 overall
• Of note: UND's 19 wins remain the most among any Division I school. UND is ranked No. 14 this week in the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Top 25 poll.