By Tracy Nelson
When Alma Kovaci came out of the United States Professional Volleyball (USPV) league and became an assistant coach at West Point four years ago she already had an impressive resume in hand. While her achievements as a player on the international and collegiate stages certainly speak for themselves, her most recent success as Army’s head coach has the Black Knights off to a stellar 13-3 record, including impressive wins over Navy and Air Force, in her first season
Despite the departure Glen Conley after a very successful eight-year run as the Black Knights’ mentor, Army was selected to finish second in the 2007 preseason poll, as voted on by Patriot League head coaches. Six-time defending champion American was picked to finish first, but the end of the season will have a different look if Kovaci and her Black Knights have anything to say about it.
Hanging prominently in Kovaci’s office is a poster that reads “Together We Win.” That’s the team’s motto this season and Kovaci is confident that the Black Knights have the talent and drive to make their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since a play-in match against Rider in 1994.
“Our ultimate goal is to peak at for the NCAA tournament,” Kovaci said. “Right now, we’re halfway there and we’re going to keep motoring along match-by-match. We look at one game at a time and every inch on the way up matters.”
Army Director of Athletics Kevin Anderson named Kovaci, a Tirane, Albania native, the seventh head coach in the history of the program in January 2007. She inherited a program that went 21-8 a year ago and finished second in the Patriot League at 11-3.
A three-time American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American at Temple, Kovaci is no stranger to winning. She played on three Atlantic 10 Championship teams (1997, 98, 99) and was a two-time conference Most Valuable Player before graduating in 2002.
Kovaci’s roots at Temple run deep. With zero family members stateside, she came to the United States at 17 years of age and made Philadelphia her home.
“I think everyone thinks fondly of their alma mater, but Temple really does have a special place in my heart,” she said. “When I came from Albania, Temple became my home and the team became my family. I still call Philadelphia home.”
Playing for head coach Bob Bertucci, who started the volleyball program at Army in 1978 before moving on to Temple years later, Kovaci was a standout in all four of her seasons with the Owls. She finished her decorated career just 18 kills shy of the all-time school record with 2,046, but still holds the Temple record for career digs with 1,632.
Bertrucci recruited Kovaci hard, as she had established herself as one of the top players in a country where soccer is king and volleyball is queen. Kovaci’s father, Novruz, encouraged both Alma and her younger sister, Olta, to get involved with volleyball early on in life.
“When I was younger, my dad and I used to sit down every Wednesday and watch a volleyball match,” Kovaci said. “We would talk about it for hours afterward. Thanks to him, I fell in love with the sport.”
While Kovaci’s mother, Yllka, took care of making sure her girls were fed and well-kept, Novruz drove his daughters all over the country on his motorcycle to play volleyball. Blessed with height and natural athleticism, Kovaci played with girls in their late twenties when she was as young as 10 years old, which forced her game to mature quickly. Olta also played volleyball at a college in their native Albania, and now coaches a club team in Italy.
Kovaci, who was playing for the Albanian National Team at the time, knew for sure that she wanted to become a professional volleyball player. Going to college in the United States became attractive, especially once Bertucci and current American head coach Barry Goldberg came calling.
“I was sitting at a table with my national team coach and Barry Goldberg wanted me to commit to American,” Kovaci remembers. “We were talking and I told him that I was going to Temple. They had the higher ranking and were the better team at the time. It’s ironic now that I’ve ended up coaching opposite him for the last five years.
“When I left Albania, my goal was to become a professional volleyball player. I went to Temple with that mindset. When I got there, it was completely different. Philadelphia is such a diverse city and Temple is huge. The culture shock and language barrier were very hard to get used to. But I know that it made me a stronger person in the end. I still miss my family every day, but they know that I made the right choice.”
Kovaci played for Grand Rapids in the inaugural season of the USPV and continued to play competitively even as an assistant at Army. In January 2005, she was called again to play for the Albanian National Team at the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World Championships in Sheffield, England. During the week-long event, she ranked seventh in digs and ranked among the top-15 best hitters in the world.
Kovaci certainly leans on her experience as a player when drawing up plays for the Black Knights, but admits the game has changed a lot in such a short time.
“When I was in college, we still only played to 15 points and it seemed like everything was set to the outside, which was great for me because I got a lot of touches,” the former outside hitter explained. “The speed of the game has increased tremendously in the last couple of years. It’s become faster and more physical. I miss playing the game, but I look at coaching as the next best thing. I get to teach and work with girls that are equally as enamored with the sport as I am. I’m extremely lucky to do what I do for a living.”
Although Kovaci’s prior successes afford her the respect that she needs from her players, the team’s relationship with the budding young coach is unique. That becomes obvious when Kovaci can periodically be found dancing along with some of her players to the team’s warm-up music before practice. However, once that first serve reaches the net, Kovaci becomes all business.
Army’s future looks bright, as the Black Knights will only lose one player, right side hitter Lauren Teal, to graduation this May. The rest of her lineup will return next fall including this year’s talented junior class that includes 2006 first team All-Patriot League players Elizabeth Lazzari and Jamie Clark.
If Kovaci’s career thus far is any indication of her future, the sky is the limit for both her and the Army volleyball program.
Tracy Nelson is an Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.