Nov. 18, 2013
NEW ORLEANS- Tulane volleyball is 26-3 overall, which is obviously one of the program's best seasons. Much of this success can be attributed to the hard work and dedication the 2013 season class has put into the program over the past few years.
Cori Martone, Mel Mandelbaum, Azarri Badawi, Amber Bennett, Elysa Jackson and Milena Dragovic recently answered some questions for TulaneGreenWave.com. They discussed their careers, their current season and their futures.
Over the course of the first few years of your career here, you combined to only win a handful of games. This year, however, you have nearly doubled your career win total. Talk a little bit about how you are ending your careers here on a high note.
Mel: This has been the ultimate ending to an interesting journey here at Tulane. We have had ups and downs and it's really great to be able to end my career with this winning season. I have learned a lot from the past few seasons and this season has really taught me that hard work and perseverance can change your life. I am blessed to have this winning season but I am even more blessed to be able to have played volleyball the past four years of my life and get a great education while doing it.
Azarri: To be honest, I am ending my career in the way I had hoped to start it. My first season here as a freshman I had such high hopes for what would come of it, but as you know, the last few seasons were definitely a struggle. It's nice to not have to struggle, and to walk into a gym, get a win and head out.
Amber: Over the past 3 years, everyone on the team has had their struggles; some struggled with injuries, others with playing time and others with balancing a rigorous Tulane curriculum with their athletics responsibilities. The fact that we had single digit wins per season increased the pressure on all of us exponentially. It takes a very special (or stubborn) group of people to endure the types of seasons that we've had these past several years, and to not transfer or quit. That resiliency and experience, along with a talented freshman class, is what is making us so successful this year. It's great to know that everyone's hard work and dedication to the program is finally paying off.
Elysa: Ending on such a high note really makes me feel like all of the time, effort, and dedication has been worth it. Playing a sport you love and being able to show that passion with a winning record is all anyone could ask for, especially your senior year. I feel like this season will definitely leave a positive mark on Tulane Volleyball and forever be something that I can look back on and be proud of. I am so grateful to be able to share this experience with some of my best friends.
Milena: Unfortunately, I was not able to play during my senior year due to injuries but I absolutely enjoyed every single set that we played, just as if I was on the court the whole time. Do not get me wrong, it was not easy to sit on the sideline, but it was an honor to be a part of a successful program.
Cori: Ending my career at Tulane with more wins this season than probably all years combined just makes all the hard times worth it. In the locker room after our win against Middle Tennessee coach talked about how the past few years have been rough but maybe because of all the suffering we had in the past it is the reason we are doing so well this year. I believe that statement. I mean, this team was ready to do something different and everything we have been through is giving us that energy to finish out strong.
As upperclassmen, this is the first year you have had a group of freshman at your team's disposal. Talk about the impact you guys have had on them during their first season at Tulane.
Mel: They have carried a lot of weight for us which has been really vital for us. My freshmen year, we had a few freshmen start so we can relate to them and help them as much as they are helping us. The chemistry on the court is also like nothing we have had before which has been one of the main differences in this winning season. I love all of our freshmen and am so happy that I got to play with them before I graduated!
Azarri: I think it's great. I have definitely forgotten what it's like to have a bunch of freshmen running around. Even though sometimes you get frustrated with the fact that they have no idea what is going on, you can't help but laugh. I know I have gotten to know a few of them pretty well and I think we have had a very positive impact on them on and off the court, providing some leadership and guidance, but also just being able to laugh and goof around with them is awesome too.
Amber: We've been able to help the freshmen in that there is no hierarchy or divide among the girls of any age, on or off of the court. In some programs, the older girls try to "put the freshmen in their place", or the new freshmen think they're the hottest things to ever step on the court and have an unwarranted ego about them. That is not the case with Tulane volleyball. An older girl who may not get as much playing time will eagerly help out a freshman who is starting. A starting freshman who has won multiple tournament awards will shag balls or put up nets without being asked. There is a stronger sense of cohesion and willingness to help than there has been in the previous years.
Elysa: The freshmen have had a huge impact on this team. Since the first time I played with them on the court I was excited to see everything they could do. It has been so fulfilling to watch them grow and help them along their path here at Tulane. They know that if they have a problem I, as well as the other upperclassmen, am here to help them any way I can. I try to be a mentor, big sister, friend, teammate, and captain to them all wrapped in one. The first year in college is a challenge in itself and adding volleyball to that is even harder. I hope that I have made that transition even a little bit smoother.
Cori: I would like to think I had a huge impact on them but I think it is the other way around. These girls are so special and I have learned so many things from each individual that I will cherish forever. These girls are strong willed and beautiful people that I will miss so much!
Some of you have been with the program so long that you played with director of volleyball operations Nikki Osuna, and Elysa even played with assistant coach Jaye Loyd. What has it meant to you all to have them both back as a part of the program this year?
Mel:They have been a great addition to our program because they know exactly what it is like to be in the position we are currently in. They are not too far removed from being student athletes and they can better understand what we are going through between school, volleyball and our personal lives.
Azarri: It's funny to think that Nikki used to play with us. We walked in together and went through our first season here together. Having her on staff is awesome, because I've seen her play and the improvements she's made I know she knows what she's talking about. Beach with her should be a good time!
Amber: What's great about having them here is that they literally know exactly what we're going through because they went through it only several years before. They bridge the social, age, gender and cultural gap between us and Coach Momic.
Elysa: For me, coming back to indoor volleyball has been like coming back home. It is where I am most comfortable and being around former teammates has made that transition back to indoor volleyball that much more smooth. They have played the game, under the same head coach, and can really relate to us.
Cori: I think it is a bit awkward at times because I find myself looking at Nikki as more of a friend but I think it also brought in a level of support that I wouldn't have gotten if they had brought in a stranger.
What do you feel has been your major contribution to the Tulane volleyball program over the course of your career?
Mel: The first summer I came to Tulane people to me that I was like a golden retriever going after the ball. I have thought about it and they were right. It has been a blessing and a curse because going after every ball has taken a toll on my body but that kind of play, and all out mentality, is something that I have contributed to this program and I hope it never leaves. I have been a captain and starter for all Four years here and I feel like as much of my contributions have been off the court supporting my team in their personal lives as on the court. As much as I have contributed to this program, it taught me just as much.
Azarri: I think my overall excitement for the game. Always being loud and sometimes over enthusiastic brings a lot of energy to the court which is useful especially in tight games, or helping the team to not get down on themselves.
Amber: Off the court contributions like academics and community service leadership.
Elysa: Over the course of my career, I would say that my major contribution to the team hasn't been conventional. I don't hold any records or lead the team in any stats, but I motivate, I encourage, I mentor, I try to lead by example and show the other players that no matter what they are going through that they can persevere. I believe that we can all be our personal best in our own special way.
What do you want your legacy to be at Tulane once your career is all said and done?
Mel: After I am done, I want everyone to remember that I gave everything I ever had to this team and to this sport and that I tried to do as much as I could for everyone else. I also want people to remember my passion for this sport and the extreme I went to while I played. Overall I hope people remember me for an intense, competitive, and passionate leader that never gave up no matter the circumstances.
Azarri: I truly don't know, I feel like after a while players always get forgotten, but I hope I made enough impact on the younger girls to be remembered for a while. Even if it's just as a jokester who liked to kid around, or someone who kept people encouraged.
Amber: Over my three years here, no one has ever outworked me, regardless of my lack of playing time. That is what I am most proud of and what I hope people will remember about my time at Tulane.
Elysa: When I am gone, I want people to say that I was a fighter, on and off the court. I want my legacy to be of strength and perseverance.
During your career here at Tulane, what has been the one moment that you will always remember?
Mel: There are so many moments that I will always remember but probably memories of my teammates and I delusionally laughing during preseason or travel trips. I will also always remember my junior year when we played Tulsa and came together as a team like we never had before. This senior season will hold a very special place in my heart but ultimately my favorite thing about my journey at Tulane has been the bonds I have created with my teammates. We will always be friends and be in each others lives and that is something that I will happily remember creating and experiencing.
Azarri: I honestly can't answer this. There are so many moments (good and bad) that will always be in my heart. Going back to freshman year being a total goofball with all my freshman girls to senior year being able to step up (or even step aside) to help the team grow. So many funny times to look back on.
Amber: Getting the second win in school history in sand volleyball my sophomore year with my partner, Shefali Arora.
Elysa: I will always remember the night we swept Tulsa. I could feel from the moment I woke up that it was going to be a good day. Mel and I held a team meeting earlier in the day to refocus the team and make sure we were all on the same page and were mentally focused to play in the match that night. The energy in the gym was amazing. We were calm, collected, focused, determined, and strong. We didn't get rattled; we just went out there and handled our business. It was a great night.
Cori: I will always remember coach Sinisa telling me I need to `experience jail' during a trip around Washington DC my freshman year. I think he would still agree with his statement he made four years ago!
What do you plan to do once you've graduated from Tulane?
Mel: After I finish my masters and get my body healthy, I want to play professional volleyball overseas for as long as my body can handle. I cannot wait to be a parent and I want to own my own practice where I will be a therapist and see patients regularly. I have also debated coaching because I do not believe that I can ever leave this sport.
Azarri: I am pursuing a master's in epidemiology at Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and plan to head overseas for a few years with the Peace Corps. Amber: I plan to go to law school and hope to practice in a sports related field, preferably in the NFL. I also plan to be involved in volleyball for as long as possible.
Elysa: I will be graduating with a Finance degree in December. I have accepted a job offer at BP in Houston and will be starting my career in January. I look forward to starting a new chapter and creating a wonderful life for my daughter Cameryn and myself.
Milena: I am currently completing my Masters of Finance, and I will pursue a career in this field.
Cori: I think I am going to have to flip a bunch of coins or pulls straws to figure that one out.