Olivia Franceskini had never even heard of Southeastern Oklahoma State as she worked on perfecting her volleyball game through junior programs in her hometown of Zadar, Croatia, on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.
And that’s no real surprise considering the whopping 5,550-mile distance between the two cities.
However a chance meeting during her junior season would change the course of both her life and Southeastern volleyball.
Franceskini was playing in a junior tournament in Italy during her junior year in high school when she met a coach with one of the American teams competing by the name of Pam Lea.
“During my junior year,” Franceskini said, “We were playing in a tournament in Italy and I was asked if I was interested in playing abroad. That’s when I met Pam [Lea].”
Lea had taken a team from Dallas this particular summer to compete overseas, but she also happened to be the mother of Southeastern setter Lindsey Lea.
That encounter set Franceskini on the road to Southeastern volleyball. However, that road still had a few bumps to clear.
The first major hurdle to bringing her to the states was the recruitment process itself.
Then head coach Cherrie Wimoth had to work patiently and somewhat resourcefully to even get to see Franceskini play. Since this was before the days of YouTube, players would send coaches vhs tape and dvds with their game film so that coaches could do evaluations.
The snag was the differences in formatting between North America and Europe.
“They sent a tape,” Wilmoth recalled, “and it was really odd because it was in the formatting they used in Europe. So we had to get it converted to where we could actually watch it and even then it was all in slow motion.”
Slow motion or not, Wilmoth saw what she was looking for.
“The things that I could see,” she continued, “were that she could pass and she had a wonderful jump serve. I thought we were still somewhat in our infant stages as a program, so why not take a shot.”
The next hurdle was actually getting her into school at Southeastern.
“I think the hardest thing,” said Wilmoth, “was getting her into the University. She had to take the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] Test like two or three times to get the right score. And at the last possible date for her to take the test and still be admitted, she passed. It was fate.”
With that Franceskini was set to join the Southeastern volleyball program and begin her college career at Southeastern Oklahoma State.
But that’s not where the hurdles ended, as she learned not long after reaching the States that there was a bit of a culture shock.
“People were so friendly here,” said Franceskini. “They were opening doors and saying hi even if you didn’t know them. I think people thought I was stuck up when I got here.”
However, the new surroundings were not the only shock she was in for as she soon learned after taking the court for the first time.
“It was very much a culture shock for her,” said Wilmoth, “in the sense that she wasn’t used to running. The first few times we did sprints, I’ll never forget, we would be through running five or six sprints and she would just collapse on the floor,
“It was interesting,” she continued, “because it wasn’t the culture in Croatia to run or be disciplined with running. They played volleyball 24-7.”
“I had never seen a weight room before I got here,” said Franceskini. “Back home we didn’t do weights and running like they do here. The game was slower back home, but more powerful.”
But she adapted and thrived.
“You have to adapt,” said Franceskini, “I’m a visual person and if I can see something then I can do it.”
And with that mindset, coupled with redshirting her first season on campus, she was poised to succeed from the moment she hit the court as a redshirt-freshman for the 2003 season.
That year she turned in what was at the time the third best single season kills mark in the program’s history, posting 417 kills and averaging 3.42 kills per set. She was also an asset all the way around the rotation with 66 service aces, 211 digs and 68 blocks on the year. Her 526.0 points on the year was the second highest point total in SE history at that time.
And it’s right to say at that time because she would eventually eclipse not only those marks, but also nearly every offensive mark in the Southeastern history book.
That first season on the court would earn her Freshman of the Year honors in the Lone Star Conference, which would be the first of several accolades she would collect over her career.
Franceskini would hit her first playing setback during her sophomore season in 2004 in which she missed nine matches due to injury and despite that still posted a team-best 288 kills that season, averaging 3.56 kills per set.
Despite her solid seasons, the team had yet to find the success they were aiming for in the win-loss column, and it was the lack of winning that had Franceskini mulling over whether to stay with the team.
“The summer before my junior year,” she said, “I was having thoughts about leaving because we hadn’t been winning like I was used to. But after talking to my parents, they said that I had been given a great opportunity here and that I should go and make the best of it.”
And make the best of it she did.
Just weeks after having those second thoughts, Franceskini embarked on what would go down as one of, if not the, greatest season in program history.
She set the record for kills in a season with 650, averaging 5.04 kills per set, she also turned in 50 service aces, 479 digs and 56 blocks. And in addition, lifted the team to a 19-16 record, which was a record for wins for the program at that time.
That season she would go on to earn the first of her back-to-back Lone Star Conference North Division Player of the Year honors, ultimately propelling her to earning Southeastern’s first All-American honor in volleyball.
She paced the LSC in kills and was 13th in the nation in kills that season and in addition to being the first volleyball player at SE to earn that caliber of recognition, she was just the fourth in the history of the LSC to do so as well.
She would close her career with a senior campaign that was the second-straight 19 win season and featured an SE best 10-match winning streak.
Individually, Franceskini added 535 kills, averaging 4.57 kills per set, with 51 aces, 422 digs and 58 blocks en route to her second-straight LSC-N Player of the Year honor.
On her career she set the record with 1,890 kills and an average of 4.21 kills per set over four seasons. She also took the most attack attempts in school history and recorded a school record 300 service aces and is fourth on the school’s digs list with 1,291 digs.
When asked about going into the Southeastern Athletics Hall of Fame after her efforts to essentially put Southeastern volleyball on the map, Franceskini replied, “I’m happy about it, but it hasn’t actually sunk in yet.”
Matt Thomas can be reached at email@example.com