By Roger Shuler
When they arrived in America three years ago from their native Serbia, Ivana Bozic, Nevena Stefanov, and Aleksandra Vujovic quickly noted the difference in climate—personal climate, that is. "People say ‘Hi' and ‘You look marvelous' all the time here," Vujovic says. "In our country, you don't make eye contact so much." Stefanov agrees: "People are more friendly and more happy here."
That was just one of many lessons the junior trio have learned since coming to Birmingham to play volleyball at UAB. The connection was built by former UAB assistant coach Nikola Petrovic, who was born and raised in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and recruited all three of the players to UAB. A fourth member of the squad, sophomore Andrea Lalic, is also a native of Serbia and Montenegro.
The volleyball team won the Conference USA championship in 2006 and made the program's first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. UAB reached the finals of the C-USA Tournament in 2007 before falling to Tulsa, finishing with a 24-9 record and its first back-to-back 20-win seasons since 1992-93.
Bozic, an honorable mention All-American in 2006, missed the last few weeks of the 2007 season because of a shoulder injury. She led the team with 14 double-doubles, averaging 14.8 kills and 13 digs per match. Stefanov was named to the C-USA All-Tournament team and passed the 4,000 mark in career assists, becoming one of the top setters in UAB and conference history. Vujovic was fourth on the team in games played and fifth in points. Lalic, a civil engineering major, was named to the C-USA Commissioner's Honor Roll and had a career-high 19 kills in the conference championship match against Tulsa.
"They've played a vital role in our success," coach Kerry Messersmith says. "Volleyball is bigger overseas than it is in the U.S., and they all started at young ages. I think that experience has paid off for them."
All four players started taking part in competitive volleyball when they were about 12 years old, but coming to America gave them a chance to combine athletics and academics.
"In Serbia, you play volleyball on a club, and your school is not connected to the sport," Stefanov says. "In fact, it's almost like a war between the schools and the sports clubs. If you miss a class for volleyball, it's a big problem."
The players remember the real wars of the 1990s that led to the separation of the former Yugoslavia. Serbia and Montenegro, former republics of Yugoslavia, formed a union from 2003 to 2006. The two formally declared independence from one another in June 2006, and many view this as symbolizing the end of what was left of the former Yugoslavia.
The players have been surprised by the quality of volleyball in the United States. "We thought we would be outstanding players over here," Stefanov says. "But there are so many good teams, and the competition is much stronger than we thought it would be."