GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Gators volleyball team trailed Kentucky on Sunday, dropping the first two sets at the O’Connell Center. Florida’s perfect record in the Southeastern Conference appeared on the brink of death.
Outside hitter Živa Recek, a scoring machine for the Gators, was not having her most productive match. The balls she normally pounds over the net with her powerful arm swing were getting lost on their way to the floor.
Gators coach Mary Wise knows what that often means for a true freshman. They can get frustrated. They can get confused. They can disappear and become a non-factor.
All Recek did was continue to smile when things weren’t going her way. She eventually got her chances and made sure they didn’t go to waste, finishing with a match-high 19 kills as Florida stormed back to win 3-2.
“She’s an old soul and has that ability that if there is a mistake, she can go right to the next play,’’ Wise said. “It was really her play that turned around the third set.”
Recek’s performance landed her a second weekly honor in her young career. Named SEC Freshman of the Week earlier this season, Recek’s play in home wins over Arkansas and Kentucky earned her SEC Offensive Player of the Week.
Recek is a long way from her home in Kočevje, Slovenia. But the 19-year-old who grew up snowboarding and skiing in her small hometown surrounded by dense forests and mountains has made a smooth transition to her new home in America.
“She has surpassed our expectations in terms of her ability to make the adjustments all freshmen have to make,’’ Wise said. “Before they can help you on the court, they have to make adjustments off the court. Živa has handled all of [that] so easily starting in summer school and [taking] English as a second language.”
While Wise has had several international players on her roster during her 22 seasons leading the program, the addition of Recek came sort of out of nowhere.
Recek got involved in volleyball because her two older sisters, Nina and Alja, played when she was growing up. Recek attended the games and eventually started to play when she was around 8. By the time she was 14, Recek made her first trip to America to play for the Slovenian Junior National Team at a tournament in California.
She later toured with the Slovenian National Team throughout Europe. The Slovenians played several American schools such as Texas, North Carolina and Georgia. Around that time Recek began thinking about leaving her homeland to come to the U.S. and play college volleyball.
Both of her older sisters stopped playing after high school but Recek wanted to see how far she could go.
“It is [popular],’’ Recek said of the sport in Slovenia. “In the summer there are tournaments for three days or the whole weekend. A lot of people come to watch the games. It’s so fun.”
When it was time for Recek to start exploring U.S. schools, she came across UF’s website. Something clicked. Wise is glad it did.
“Sometimes you have to just be lucky,’’ Wise said. “The fact Živa found Florida’s website, it piqued her interest and she wrote us. That’s how it started.”
Wise watched video posted online of Recek playing, which piqued her interest in the 6-footer with long limbs. She eventually made her way to Slovenia this past March to watch Recek play in person.
Wise liked what she saw and by summer Recek was at UF taking classes and preparing for this new chapter in her life.
She got to share a special moment earlier this season when the Gators hosted the Slovenian Junior National Team in an exhibition at the O’Connell Center on Sept. 3.
Recek knew most of the players on the Slovenian team better than her Florida teammates. One by one they asked her how the decision to come to America to play was working out.
“Slovenia is so small, I think I played against everyone on that team,’’ Recek said.
What did she tell them?
“Everything is good,’’ she said, her grasp of the English language improving each day. “Practice is really good here. It’s a much higher level than in Slovenia. They know I have a lot of fun here and that I practice really good here. I think some of them are interested in coming to the U.S. for college.”
Recek’s path to UF also includes a distinguished junior career in beach volleyball, which is a bit unusual for an American college player. While beach volleyball’s popularity has grown significantly in recent years – in part because of the Olympics – Wise expects more and more players to have beach volleyball experience in the next five years due to the sport’s growth.
Recek won a beach volleyball title in California as a 16-year-old and played in tournaments in Greece and Portugal.
“Fortunately for us Živa was interested in playing indoors,’’ Wise said. “She could have easily chosen one of the schools that sponsor beach volleyball. In Europe and other places it’s very popular between the four years of the Olympics. There are a lot of girls that are choosing to play that sport right now.”
Once Recek showed her interest in the Gators, Wise still had concerns about signing her.
“It’s not an easy way to recruit,’’ she said. “In certain countries, if they are talented, they are already playing pro. In a country like Slovenia, you’ve got a chance because they don’t have the pro leagues that Poland, Russia and Italy do.”
Recek’s curiosity in joining the Gators never wavered.
As she spoke recently about her decision, she looked around the Lemerand Center where the Gators practice. She talked about the great facilities and the video cameras that record practice and the instruction you get from coaches from the video sessions.
She experienced little of that prior to UF.
“We were not practicing [much outside of games],’’ Recek said of her career in Slovenia. “We were just having fun.”
Recek is thankful she stuck to her plan to move so far from home for college.
“It’s like I expected,’’ she said. “Before in Slovenia, I knew almost all the players in our first division because I played against them many times. Here I don’t know any teams. It’s my first time playing any of them. That helps me get better.”
Recek has started 13 of 15 matches and leads the Gators in kills (207), kills per set (3.91), and is second behind teammate Chloe Mann in points per set (4.30).
A stroke of good luck never hurts, even in recruiting. Wise is glad Recek wrote. In the time since Wise has learned that Recek is not your everyday freshman.
“She’s very responsible, independent. She is really one of the most low-maintenance talented players we have ever coached,’’ Wise said. “The talented ones are not always your most low maintenance. She is so easygoing.”