The students on this year’s women’s volleyball team at Mercy University aren’t just learning how to beat their Division II rivals. They’re also learning about each other, coming together as a team and picking up a little Portuguese and Caribbean Spanish along the way. One member of the 14-woman squad is from Brazil, one is from the Dominican Republic and six are from Puerto Rico. All 14 have a hunger to win and an enthusiasm for learning about their teammates’ cultures.
“The fact that we’re so diverse helps a lot,” says team co-captain Larissa Schneid, a Mercy senior who is from Brazil. “We all talk to each other openly about one another’s culture, and that makes you feel really welcomed and accepted. We laugh together, dance together, and we’re so comfortable with each other, we’ve really become a family. And Coach Ana, she’s there for us, which helps those with family in other countries so far away.”
Coach Ana Todorovic, who is Serbian; played five years for the national team of Serbia and played professionally there for 17 years, before coming to America more than a decade ago.
Coincidentally, Todorovic explored coaching at Mercy nine years before she was hired here. “(Assistant Vice President for Athletics) Matt Kilcullen said to me, ‘Do you know that you emailed me nine years ago?’ I didn’t remember, but I went back to check my emails and I did email him, and he did email me back.”
“Ana came to us very highly recommended by our former Coach Gary Preston,” commented Kilcullen. “I thought I remembered her name and lo and behold, I came across the email I sent her. Ana has done a tremendous job with the program in the short time she has been here. I'm very happy that we reconnected!”
Todorovic joined Mercy last year and led the team to its best season since 2005; it marked the first-time women’s volleyball was back in the NCAA regional rankings. At press time, the team secured a spot in the East Coast Conference (ECC) tournament semifinal.**
“We’re still in the game, fighting for a spot in the playoffs,” says Todorovic. “The other teams in the East Coast Conference are all getting stronger every year. We’ve practiced a lot, and the players are all so hungry for more.”
“Volleyball has been my passion since I was a little kid,” says team co-captain Yarianne Gonzalez ’24, who shares a dorm room with Schneid. “I enjoy the feeling of playing as a team with other girls who have the same passion I do. Being from Puerto Rico, I was excited to learn more English. And I’m becoming fluent in Portuguese!”
Gonzalez has accumulated some impressive honors at Mercy: In 2021 she was named First Team All ECC and in 2022 she was the Co-Setter of the Year in the ECC. (The setter is the team player who sets up the ball so that her teammate can smash it over the net.) Gonzalez is majoring in Health Science Promotion and says she hopes to play professionally in Puerto Rico when she graduates.
For Schneid, who has been playing volleyball since she was nine years old growing up in São Paulo, Brazil, playing for Mercy has been a rewarding experience as both an athlete and a student. “I love the Mercy campus, the location. From the beginning I was really comfortable here. In Brazil we don’t have the chance to study and play for a school, you have to choose one or the other. For me it has been so nice to play for my school, to play the sport that I love. I definitely like the scholar-athlete model. You’re a student first and an athlete second. At Mercy you get a lot of support for both.”
Being a team co-captain helps her with leadership and guidance skills, both of which she says come naturally to her. “I work a lot to put the team’s performance above my own performance. That makes me a better person, to be proactive in helping my teammates.” Schneid rounds out her Mercy experience by indulging in the great New York experience as well: Niagara Falls, New York Yankees games, Broadway and Rockefeller Center during the holidays.
“All the opportunities I’ve had here at Mercy — no one can take them from me. This cannot be taught, and it can’t be bought — it’s priceless. Each time it makes me happier for having chosen it.”
In volleyball, there are six players on the court at any given time, but there’s a “7th player” with them always: the crowd, which they’re excited to say is growing. “Now we’re bringing the awareness across more, Mercy is really on top of it, we’re feeling more united with the school,” says Schneid.
This article is from the Maverick Magazine Fall 2023 issue. To read more, click here.
** Editor’s Note: The volleyball team made it to the NCAA Division II Women's Volleyball Championship Second Round.