By JACK ROSSI
IOWA CITY, Iowa — For former Hawkeyes Ashley Mariani and Kelsey O’Neill, volleyball took them beyond the collegiate ranks and into the pro spotlight as they left the United States and pursued their professional careers abroad.
Mariani, who graduated in 2016, played in every set for the Hawkeyes in 2015 and 2016 after transferring from Tennessee. She holds the seventh highest career attack percentage at Iowa (.250) and the record for attack percentage in a five set match with a .636 mark.
O’Neill, a 2017 graduate, finished her career at Iowa after playing three years at Pittsburgh. O’Neill made an immediate impact leading Iowa in blocks per set and ranked second on the team with 106 blocks.
Mariani is in her second year playing for VFB Suhl Lotto Thuringia in Suhl, Germany, while O’Neill is in her first season with Slávia Ekonomická Univerzita in Bratislava, Slovakia.
“Playing professionally has been a true blessing,” Mariani said. “I’ve been able to travel around Europe and see beautiful things along with playing the sport I love.”
“The experience has been great so far,” O’Neill said. “I’ve wanted to play professionally for a while now so I was beyond excited when it became a reality.”
But before either made a final decision, Mariani and O’Neill both consulted with the Iowa coaching staff about their desire to play professionally.
“My coaches at Iowa were supportive of me playing abroad,” O’Neill said. “(Associate head coach) Vicki (Brown) played abroad herself, so I turned to her for advice when I was looking into where I wanted to play and what life would be like overseas.”
“Iowa helped me by reinforcing true mental toughness and great work ethic,” Mariani said. “Playing at Iowa prepared me for the workouts I do now and knowing what I need to do on the court to succeed.”
Despite playing in different countries, Mariani and O’Neill’s schedules follow similar schedules with one or two games a week along practice every day and lifting as well.
“We do still have a lot of down time to ourselves to explore Bratislava and the occasional free weekend to go explore the surrounding countries,” O’Neill said.
But while they play hundreds of miles from home, they still see other players from the United States.
“I run into other Americans all the time,” Mariani said. “There are usually two or more Americans on each team. There are three of us on my team this year.”
“I have another American on the team, Taylor Nelson, and I’ve actually been able to play with her before on the USA National Collegiate Team a few summers ago,” O’Neill said. “Having her here made the transition away from home a lot easier.”
While both O’Neill and Mariani have found success overseas, Mariani has a bit of advice for volleyball players looking to play at the next level.
“Work hard and reach out to people who are playing overseas now to ask about where they are and where they have been,” Mariani said. “Every league is different. You need to have an idea of what countries you would want to play in.”
By JACK ROSSI