The following article appeared in the Middletown Times-Herald Record on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2009, and features volleyball freshman Ariana Mankus. It was written by Ken McMillan.
WEST POINT — The first time Army coach Alma Kovaci saw Ariana Mankus playing volleyball, she could not take her eyes off her.
"I saw this little kid with so much fire and so much heart,'' Kovaci said. "She made an impression on me that this is the type of kid we want.''
Mankus had plenty of college coaches recruiting her, but those schools could not give her what she truly desired — a chance to play Division I volleyball, plus serve her country in the military.
"I knew that West Point would offer more opportunities than I ever could dream of,'' Mankus said. "It's a great institution. It's something I wanted to be a part of. They emphasize teamwork, and I love being on a team and working together.''
At a school where leaders are built over four years, Mankus stepped in as a freshman this season and set the tone for a team that lost four vital players to graduation. Mankus is loud and vocal on the floor, and she is not afraid to run through chairs in match play and even in practice.
"She truly is a passionate player,'' Kovaci said. "The team has that energy and family feel because of her.''
Standing 5-foot-8, Mankus has proven to be nearly unstoppable on the court as an outside hitter. She leads the Patriot League with 386 kills (3.64 per game) and ranks sixth in hitting percentage (.291). At this weekend's NCAA tournament, she could become the first Black Knight to surpass 400 kills since Jennifer Cave did so three times from 1997-99.
Mankus became the first player in 20 years of Patriot League action to be named player of the year and rookie of the year in the same season.
"I think in any league, to have a freshman have that much impact on a program ... it doesn't happen very often,'' said Colgate coach Ryan Baker.
Kovaci said Mankus has tremendous "volleyball IQ,'' no doubt the end result of playing for Sports Performance, considered to be one of the top club teams in the nation. Mankus was the MVP on her club team, and led her Benet Academy team to its first Illinois state championship.
"Ariana is a very, very smart player,'' Baker said. "She sees the court really well, which makes her tough to defend against. Usually you don't see her visual skills in the game at such a young age. Her ability to see the block and hit around it is the most impressive thing about her. Also, she's very aggressive and vocal, which, again, you are surprised to see at such a young age. She is definitely a floor leader.''
It didn't take long for Mankus to make a positive impact. She won five rookie of the week awards and was also player of the week once from the league.
"She doesn't play with a freshman mentality,'' Kovaci said. "As soon as you put a volleyball in her hands, she goes to work. I love that.''
Mankus leads Army with 13 double-digit efforts in kills and digs in the same match. The Black Knights (26-5) won at No. 19 Pepperdine, beat visiting Iowa and posted a 14-match win streak, snapped on the second-to-last weekend of league play. Army has won its last four matches, including sweeps of Colgate and eight-time defending champion American in the Patriot League tournament.
"I was not expecting any of it, to be honest,'' Mankus said. "I came in just looking to do the best I can and work hard, that's all you can do. I feel very good that I could do my part in helping my team. It's a team effort and they have helped me just as much as I have helped them, even more in fact. It's just been incredible.''