Inside the recruiting process that brought Polina Shemanova to Syracuse

first_img Published on September 8, 2019 at 11:20 pm Contact Adam: adhillma@syr.edu | @_adamhillman Polina Shemanova and Yuliia Yastrub reclined on the orange bleachers under a basketball hoop in the Women’s Building and listened. In an unfilled gym following a late August practice, the two fixed their gazes on head coach Leonid Yelin as he described the first time he ever saw Shemanova on the volleyball court.“(Shemanova) played with her mom,” Yelin said. “Her mom was actually better than her.”The two laughed at Yelin’s joke.Before becoming Yelin’s star player, Shemanova wasn’t a touted recruit, even though she finished third in the U-18 World Championships with Russia in 2017. In Shemanova’s freshman season, the St. Petersburg, Russia native tallied 447 kills, the most ever by an SU freshman. She was selected to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference first team, ACC freshman of the year and 2019 ACC preseason first team. Shemanova became the cornerstone of SU before she was 18.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textShemanova didn’t consider coming to America before talking with her childhood friend, Mariia Levanova, who played for Syracuse from 2015 to 2018. Eventually, Levanova approached Yelin, telling the storied head coach about her friend’s natural skillset, work ethic and talent.“If she’s really as good as everyone says, why would I not?” Yelin said.So in January of 2018, he flew to Russia to convince Shemanova to play ACC volleyball.“I pretty much knew who she was,” Yelin said. “I had heard she was interested. You know who’s an absolutely no, who’s an absolutely yes and who you have to go see.”TJ Shaw | Staff PhotographerYelin arrived in St. Petersburg and drove to a local elementary school gym, where Shemanova was going to be playing with her mother, Olga Anisimova, against a recreational team. Even competing against non-professional players, Yelin saw her all-around talent: How she could leap and reach high into the air, how she was willing to sacrifice her body to keep the ball from smacking against the floor, how she could pummel the ball across the court.Most of all, he was amazed at how she was so confident in her abilities at such a young age.“I was really nervous. It’s like, ‘Oh my god. It’s a person who wants me to play in America,’” Shemanova said. “I’m playing with these people and it’s not the best level in St. Petersburg. I have to show him my best. It was kind of weird, but I tried. It was uncomfortable.”Even though Shemanova is relatively short for an outside hitter, at 6 feet, Yelin was convinced that he needed Shemanova on his team. So, at the end of the game, Yelin, Shemanova and her mother talked in the parking lot for an hour and a half.Eva Suppa | Digital Design EditorSince Levanova had already sold Shemanova on life in America, Yelin focused his efforts on convincing Anisimova, who was still unsure about sending her daughter across the world. Yelin promised that Shemanova could “kill two birds” by getting a world-class education and playing volleyball.“We had the same coach when we were young, so I knew her and I knew her as a very good player with a lot of experience,” Levanova said about recruiting Shemanova via WhatsApp. “That’s why I wanted her to come.”If Shemanova stayed in Russia, she would’ve had to pick between volleyball and education because the country doesn’t have a collegiate sports system. Pro teams sign players around the age of 15 and Shemanova wasn’t going to be able to attend top-ranked schools for education.During her last year of high school, Yelin and Shemanova called through Skype once a week. Most of the conversation was casual and Yelin would often quip with her, showing his sarcastic side. Once, when her younger brother was out in the yard playing soccer, Yelin joked about persuading SU’s head soccer coach to sign him.Eva Suppa | Digital Design EditorYelin highlighted features of SU to convince Shemanova. She could have the comfort of playing a team with heavy Eastern European ties — four of its 2019 roster is from Europe — while also studying at a private university.She could learn English, play professionally and prepare for a career outside of volleyball. Leaving was difficult, though. When Shemanova departed for the U.S., her mom was pregnant. Shemanova missed her brother’s birth late last year and his first steps this summer. She only sees her family over the summer, as she returned to St. Petersburg for two months to meet her brother, Artemii, for the first time.“It was tough, but when we all looked it at it just made sense,” Shemanova said. “To get this opportunity to play and study is perfect.”One year ago, a 17-year-old Shemanova wasn’t allowed to speak to the media, meeting with Yelin twice a week to smooth the transition to America. Yelin had made sure to guide the outside hitter, a future pillar of the program, Yelin and Shemanova said.TJ Shaw | Staff PhotographerHis plan worked. The then-freshman dominated ACC competition, recording double-digit kills in 26 of 28 matches. She notched 25 kills and 20 digs against Miami before spiking 30 kills against Florida State, who made the NCAA tournament, in the very next game. Her attacks bounced off the hands of middle blockers, between outside hitters and into the golden wood floor of the Women’s Building.Standing under a basketball hoop in that same gym, Shemanova doesn’t waver when asked about her relationship with Yelin. The two who met twice weekly her freshman year now rarely convene. She just doesn’t need his help anymore because Shemanova has become a leader for the Orange. Yastrub said players trust her to talk about almost anything.To Yelin, that trip to St. Petersburg paid off.“She knows what she wants to be and she knows who she wants to be,” Yelin said. Comments Facebook Twitter Google+last_img