Athlete Spotlight: Stephanie Elechko of EU Volleyball

     Eastern Volleyball senior Stephanie Elechko has been a key piece to the Eagles’ success since she joined the team in 2013. In her first year as an Eagle, EUVB had an overall record of 32-5 and made it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Division III tournament. In her first season, Elechko recorded 270 kills, averaging 2.45 kills per set. In 2014, Elechko’s sophomore season, the Eagles lost in the NCAA Division III Regional Final. The following year, the Eagles secured their eighth consecutive MAC Freedom Conference Championship and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Elechko recorded another 371 kills, becoming the leader in kills for EUVB. On Saturday, Sept. 24, Elechko delivered her 1,000th career kill, joining a list of only 11 other EUVB alumni who have achieved this milestone. As of Oct. 6, Elechko is nationally ranked eighth in total kills and ninth in kills per set.

     Although Elechko has grown to dominate in collegiate volleyball, Eastern’s star outside hitter was not always an exclusive volleyball player. Growing up, Elechko was exposed to a variety of sports before she finally found her home on the volleyball court.

     Elechko grew up in Lansdale, Pa., about a half-hour from Eastern’s St. David’s campus. Like many young athletes, Elechko’s first sport was soccer, a game she loved from the start. Eventually she also added softball and lacrosse to the mix, thereby diversifying herself as an athlete. Of all of her athletic endeavors, volleyball was the last sport Elechko picked up. All her life she had been told she should play basketball because of her height.

     “But I didn’t like basketball,” Elechko says through laughter, “so then people would say, ‘You should play volleyball!’”

     As a first-year student at North Penn High School, Elechko decided to join the volleyball team instead of playing high school soccer. Her sister Kathryn, who is just one year older, was also playing volleyball, which persuaded her to give the sport a serious try. Although Elechko ultimately chose to play high school volleyball during the fall season, she continued playing club soccer as well. During her first year at North Penn, Elechko suffered a broken arm and was unable to play her first high school season. Though she was unable to participate in practices, Elechko still felt very much a part of the team. During practices Elechko would hang out in the gymnasium, hitting a volleyball against the walls. It was during this time Elechko realized that volleyball could really be something special.

     Eventually Elechko began playing club volleyball, which is where her rapid development in the sport began. One of Elechko’s club coaches was Christi Schlager, who played for EUVB at the time. Schlager told Elechko that she would be a great fit for the Eastern team, and so Elechko visited EU for the first time during her junior year of high school. From the very start, Elechko knew she liked the EU volleyball program. She was initially attracted by their success on the court, but she also loved the genuine bond shared by the women on the team.

     “I remember seeing their team bond and wanting to be a part of it,” Elechko reflects.

     Although there were several other schools Elechko looked at for volleyball, she happily settled on Eastern.

     “It was the school I’d been around the longest,” she says. “It just felt right. Eastern felt like home.”

     There was never a doubt that EU was where Elechko belonged. When asked about her favorite part of the EU Volleyball program, Elechko pointed to the friendships she has made with her teammates.

“Our team’s success is just the icing on top of the cake,” she says.

      Now a senior, Elechko plays a big role in cultivating an inclusive atmosphere for her younger teammates. Coach Birtwistle stresses the importance of forming genuine relationships with each other, which cuts to the core of what the Eastern Volleyball program is all about. During the season, the team has a “pairing system” they use to get to know individual teammates better. Each week, each woman is paired up with one of her other teammates and is encouraged to spend time with and reach out to her partner.

     “When we get really busy, we just do things like eating a meal together and talk about non-volleyball things,” Elechko explains. “But if we have more time I try to do something more fun, something I know my teammate likes.”

     Now midway through the 2016 season, the Eagles stand with an overall record of 17-2 and an undefeated conference record of 4-0. In her senior season, Elechko hopes to host another conference championship and go as far as possible in the NCAA tournament. But for now, she knows the best strategy is to take it one game at a time.

     “We are the team to beat. We are the team everyone points to in their schedule.”

     Even with all the pressure to win, Elechko is able to stay level-headed and focus on what really matters: her teammates.

     “It’s such a blessing to play alongside such talented players and awesome people,” she says.

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