A whole new world - Tucson News Now

A whole new world

Tucson, AZ (KOLD) – It started with tears. Lots of them.

“I was just in shock. I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Katarina Pilepic knew why she was doing it though. So did her parents who taught her that sacrifice and success go hand in hand. When an American college offers to help pay for your education, you go. No matter the cost.

So the then 18-year-old boarded the plane, a plane destined for a country she had never stepped foot in before, destined for a city and college completely foreign to her. All this to play the sport she loved. Volleyball.

The plane took off from Croatia. Over 6,300 miles later, it landed in San Francisco.

It was not an easy flight.

“I remember I was sitting in the last seat of the plane crying,” said Pilepic. “People were just turning around all the time, feeling pity for me.”

She laughs at the memory.

“How can I be so weak?”

You get the sense that weakness does not sit well with Pilepic. And why would it for the girl born in the second to last year of the Croatian War of Independence? The girl born to a mother, Maja, who was forced to care for her two children alone while her husband, Boris, was off fighting for that independence.

The end of the Cold War in the late ‘80’s posed very serious political complications for the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. At the time, Yugoslavia consisted of six separate republics: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Serbia. As the Berlin Wall crumbled, republics including Croatia looked to break away and attain their own regional identity. Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic had other ideas.

Milosevic had put out the call for a more centralized nationalist state. Slowly but surely, he began consolidating political power in an effort to accomplish his goal. This included drawing ethnic lines between Croats and Serbian nationalists living within Croatia.

By 1991, those tensions hit a boiling point and in June, Croatia declared its independence. In August, the fighting began in earnest.   

Four years and 20,000 deaths later, the war was over. Croatia had gotten what it wanted. Autonomy. When the smoke finally cleared, Pilepic’s family had reunited with its patriarch, unharmed and unbroken despite witnessing the deaths of many of his fellow soldiers.

A little over a decade later, Boris Pilepic took his only daughter Katarina to her first volleyball match.

“It was not a good level of volleyball,” said Pilepic. “But for me, first time seeing it, it was U.S.A. vs. Brazil.”

It was also a life-altering moment. Up until that match, Pilepic had been a swimmer. Following that match, Pilepic redirected her athletic talent to a sport she deemed beautiful.

“It’s just elegant,” said Pilepic. “When you see the women jumping, touching the ground, there’s so much to it.”

She joined the European club circuit and found she had talent. Lots of it. Enough to garner attention from Gilad Doron, the decorated head women’s volleyball coach from the University of San Francisco. The Dons’ roster already boasted two Croatians. It was an easy sell. Her experience once she got to California, however, was anything but.

“My freshman year,” said Pilepic. “I hated volleyball. It was just adapting, missing home. By the end of freshman year I just started enjoying it because I had to. Otherwise I wasn’t going to survive four years.”

She survived and eventually thrived. By the end of her junior season, Pilepic became just the 11th player in school history to record 1,000 kills. Yet, something was missing.

“I was ready for a bigger challenge,” said Pilepic. “I reached a limit. I was ready to commit to a greater program.”

Her decision to transfer was made easy when, in the spring of 2016, Doron left the program to take over at Dartmouth.

Out in Tucson, the stars aligned.

When Arizona head coach Dave Rubio caught wind that Doron was leaving for the east coast, he called his good friend.

“He said, ‘Yeah Dave. I found a better situation for me and my family. By the way, how do you feel about a player we have looking to transfer? Do you need such a player?’ And I’m like, it’s funny you should ask.”

When the Wildcats lost senior transfer Nikki Attea to graduation, they lost a dependable opposite hitter who had accounted for the third most Arizona kills in 2015. Pilepic would have a role to fill immediately.

Rubio didn’t waste any time.

“We were the first one in the door,” said Rubio.

Indeed they were. The conversation with Doron took place on a Thursday. Friday, Arizona was scheduled to bus out to San Diego for a tournament. En route, Rubio made calls to the travel agent, hoping to book a flight from San Diego to San Francisco for a meeting with Pilepic. He then summoned Wildcat assistant Gregg Whitis, out recruiting in Southern California, down to San Diego in order to coach the team and allow Rubio to fly to the Bay.

“I knew a player of her caliber, once she gets on the open market, it was going to be a free for all,” said Rubio.

“What I really liked about Dave was that he was really similar to my ex-coach,” said Pilepic. “They’re genuine people. They care about a player getting better and that’s what I was looking for.”

“I felt that it was really important that I got in front of her,” said Rubio. “That when we finished the meeting and I got back on the plane, that she felt pretty good about the kind of person I was.”

Guts had taken Pilepic from her native land to an unknown city in an unfamiliar country. Now, she’d do it again, moving from a comfortable metropolitan area to a smaller community in the middle of the desert. Still, 6,300 miles from home.

Pilepic had no regrets.

“It was love at first sight,” she said.

Pilepic is playing through a broken right pinkie, an injury she suffered in the beginning of camp. Even still, she’s seen action in all three opening games and has 16 kills to show for it. Once full strength, who knows where she’ll end up on the stat sheet.

"It hurts," she said. "But it feels better to play than to sit on the bench."

No weakness. She's come too far from that airport terminal in Croatia to let it bother her now. 

Copyright 2016 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.

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