Two years ago in a gym in Zagreb, Croatia, Lara Vukasovic looked up in the stands and saw the key to her future as well as the source of a long-held secret. There sat Cal head coach Rich Feller.
Vukasovic, on the other hand, sat on the bench and tried hard to remain calm. She was not nervous because of Feller — she had another reason for her nerves.
For the last few months Lara had been seriously considering a collegiate career abroad. She believed her future lay in the States where the university system encourages the concept of the student-athlete.
But, she was scared to tell her team and coaches that she would leave.
“I was so nervous,” Vukasovic says. “Nobody from my club knew that he was there. Somebody asked me, ‘Who is that man sitting there?’ and I said I didn’t know, even though I did.”
Weeks had passed since she had made the decision, but she had yet to tell her stringent coaches out of fear of retribution.
She had a secret, and it was killing her.
But that fear and pressure never derailed Vukasovic from her plans of making it to Berkeley.
In sixth grade Vukasovic joined HAOK Mladost, a club volleyball team. Throughout her life she was surrounded by volleyball since her mother played professionally in France. It was in her blood.
Soon after joining the club, Vukasovic discovered the difficulty of balancing sports and academics in Croatia. An aspiring athlete like Vukasovic would inevitably be faced with a choice between the path of an athlete or the path of an academic. Doing both was almost impossible.
Lara tried to delay this choice as long as she could. Without an organized high school volleyball team, Vukasovic had to practice separately with her club.
“I had two practices a day around school,” Vukasovic says. “I would go to bed at three in the morning and then wake up at seven. I was always exhausted.”
On top of a relentless schedule, Vukasovic also had to deal with a volleyball organization run by strict, screaming coaches.
In volleyball, the top Croatian levels are very demanding. Coaches want to win so badly that their players are scared to make mistakes.
But Laura did not let the intimidating coaches get to her.
“I was more the type that would not listen to the coaches because they are saying all that stuff to you that you don’t wanna hear,” Vukasovic says. “You blank because you are angry.”
Vukasovic disliked her coaches, but her love of the sport and tremendous success she had as a starter on the junior national team outweighed her animosity at the nature of Croatian volleyball.
Vukasovic persisted until an opportunity came calling from across the Atlantic.
Cal has had a pipeline of Croatian players for the past decade. Mia Jerkov began the tradition back in 2001, followed by Hana Cutura in 2006.
In 2010 Vukasovic was rapidly moving through the upper echelons of Croatian volleyball, jumping from the junior national team to the senior national team.
During Vukasovic’s sophomore year of high school she sat down to dinner with the Cutara family. Hana informed Vukasovic of everything there was to know about playing volleyball in the States.
Vukasovic took to heart what Cutara said. Cutara’s portrait of America, coupled with the desire to get a degree, motivated Lara to research Cal.
Cutara’s mother informed Feller of Vukasovic’s interest in playing volleyball, prompting Feller to open a recruiting profile.
“We got feedback from the different people we knew there to let us know what she was like,” Feller says. “It was mostly, ‘She is very tall.’ We thought, ‘Well, tall is good and we can deal with that.’”
In 2011, Feller made a recruiting trip to Zagreb, relying on the word of the Cutara family and the past success of Croatian players.
Feller discovered a young athlete with all the basic skills he could work with at Cal to go along with her 6’5” frame.
“It was good to see what I had hoped to see making a long trip like that and have it come true,” Feller says.
Feller wanted Vukasovic, and Vukasovic wanted Cal. It was a perfect match, but it wasn’t without stress.
The Croatian National Federation has never been financially secure nor all that good. They recently failed to qualify for the London Olympics due to inherent issues within the organization.
They have struggled to keep their top talent inside the country; any desire on behalf of a player to go abroad is usually met with derision and a benching.
For former bears Jerkov and Cutara, the CNF was irate losing athletes with such international potential.
“The CNF did not want Jerkov and Cutara to ever come back to Berkeley, they wanted them to always stay,” Feller says.
Vukasovic felt the same pressure as her predecessors. She feared the wrath of her coaches and the scorn of her players if she told them of her ambitious plans.
“I didn’t tell them because they would get mad,” Vukasovic says. “They waited on me and helped me develop. If I had said I was leaving I wouldn’t play.”
Benching was the least of her worries in the months leading up to her signing with the Bears.
Feller’s visit was supposed to be an exciting time for Vukasovic. Instead it was a nightmare. In scrimmages with Feller in attendance, Vukasovic played very little.
Every day, she worried about the moment when she would need to reveal her intentions to her club.
Finally the best chance for Vukasovic came when a new coach was hired. Vukasovic organized a heart to heart and finally opened up about her future.
“I didn’t want the pressure anymore, so I told him, ‘This is it,’” Vukasovic says.
Vukasovic was able to look at Cal no longer behind a veil of secrecy.
Currently, Vukasovic is in the midst of her freshman campaign at Cal. She’s defining her role on this year’s Bear’s squad and notching playing time in a heavily depleted Cal roster.
For Vukasovic, the whole experience is so different from the pressure she felt in Croatia.
“In Croatia you play because you have to and the coach is screaming at you,” Vukasovic says. “Here they want you to want to win. You are not playing because of pressure, you are playing because you want to play and want to win.”
Austin Crochetiere covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]