In A Class By Themselves

The following feature originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2008 edition of Army Football Gameday vs. Akron.

by Tracy Nelson

They are from four different states, took four different paths to West Point and play four different roles on the Army volleyball team. These four players have three words in common: Patriot League Championship. That title has been on the minds of seniors Elizabeth Lazzari, Jamie Clark, Briana Stremick and Rachael Breinling for four long years and this is their last chance to make that dream a reality.

After setting a program record for winning percentage last fall with a 24-6 (.828) record, a veteran-laden Black Knight squad is back. Full of fire and determination, the Class of 2008 is ready to make their mark on Army volleyball shine even brighter than it already does for the most successful class to pass through West Point.

***

An undersized hitter known for her passion and big personality, Lazzari ended up at Army for precisely those attributes. Head coach Alma Kovaci, who spent four years as an assistant under Glen Conley before taking the reins in 2007, first saw the 5-10 workhorse at a tournament in Anaheim, Calif. Lazzari was a birch among redwoods on a new club team, TCA (Team Complete Athlete), but managed to captain the squad and run it with the poise of a veteran.

“She had heart and I could see in her eyes that she loved to play the game. I knew right away that she was exactly the kind of impact player we wanted at West Point,” Kovaci said.

With high-caliber programs like Arizona hot on Lazzari’s trail, Kovaci sought her out when she saw the Seal Beach, Calif., native play again in Baltimore, Md., later that year.

“I introduced myself and said that I was from West Point,” Kovaci recalled. “Liz said West who?’”

Lazzari quickly became acquainted with West Point and has since placed herself among the most respected players the program has ever had. A former Patriot League Rookie of the Year, the co-captain is a three-time all-conference player that has developed into one of most well-rounded threats in the league.

In 2008, Kovaci implemented a swing offensive scheme in an attempt to capitalize on the team’s speed and make up for a lack of height. That meant moving Lazzari to the middle of the court so to have the ability to hit from either the right or left side. The results have been nearly three kills and over three digs per set for Lazzari.

Lazzari has been equally as successful off the court. She was selected as the Brigade Corps Squad Officer for 2008-09, serving as the liaison between the corps and the athletic department, a position that she actively sought out and won just as her inner-drive would suggest.

A philosophy, art and literature major, Lazzari exudes a simplistic, live-for-today attitude rather than relying on a specific map of her future.

 “I’m just trying to live in the moment right now,” Lazzari said. “I plan on branching medical service and spending time in the Army. After that, I would like to go to law school and just have a chance to make a difference.”

***

Clark grew up on a ranch in rural Colorado dreaming of a career in veterinary medicine. Although that thought is still in the plans, her future now includes serving her country. Always a gifted athlete, Clark set her heart on attending college to compete in both track and field and volleyball.

The Army track and field staff received a questionnaire from Clark and, noting that she also played volleyball, passed that information along the volleyball office. That’s where it all began.

She made a name for herself as a budding young middle on the volleyball court, while spending the winter and spring seasons competing in the heptathlon for the track and field team.

“I love both sports for different reasons. The team aspect of volleyball is addicting, but track is more about how much you push yourself,” Clark said. “In spring of my sophomore year, I knew I had to make a very tough decision. It came down to the fact that volleyball needed me more at that point.”

Since making that decision, Clark has nabbed back-to-back First Team All-Patriot League selections, the school record for career hitting percentage (.356) and the title of co-captain.

Unusually short for a middle blocker, Clark makes up for her lack of height with undeniable speed and strength.

“Jamie is such a hard worker, especially in the weight room,” Kovaci said. “What keeps her on the court is her quickness. She can get to any ball and the setters love that.”

Similar to Lazzari, Clark holds a high position within the corp as the Brigade Respect Executive Officer. With that, Clark oversees the respect program, managing all of the brigade respect officers, a high school outreach program and countless other duties.

Clark has still not given up her pursuits to become a vet and hopes to someday enter the vet corps of the Army.

“Originally my plan was to go right to vet school, but after spending the summer in training, I decided that I really want to go out in the Army and be a platoon leader,” Clark said.

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Standing 6-3, Stremick grew up as one-half of Langdon, North Dakota’s “Twin Towers.” Briana and her identical twin sister Justine, who is just a hair taller, did everything together as kids, including pushing each other on the volleyball court.

 In the midst of standout high school careers, Notre Dame set its sights on the “Twin Towers.” Before the offer for both came rolling in, Briana had seen a special featuring West Point on the National Geographic channel. Shortly thereafter, her mind was made up. Justine ended up with the Fighting Irish and Briana at West Point.

“After I saw that segment on West Point, I became really interested and found out that I could pursue the military and play Division I volleyball all at once,” Stremick said. “West Point combines leadership, academics and intense physical challenges. I like to think that I thrive on succeeding in all of those aspects.”

Stremick, a three-time Patriot League Academic Honor Roll selection, certainly had the grades to get into West Point and has perpetually maintained the highest grade-point average on the team. Stremick, however, was not initially recruited by West Point. Rather, she sent a game tape in hopes that she would peak the coaching staff’s interest.

“I remember sitting down to eat lunch one day and noticing these tapes on Glen’s desk,” Kovaci said. “I popped one in the VCR. I saw Briana hit a ball and yelled for Glen to come in. Not too long after, Briana committed to us.”

Armed with a powerful swing and decent height, Stremick had a breakout junior season and is poised to improve. Moving from the middle to right side and playing a full rotation this year has allowed her skills to flourish in the Black Knights’ new offense.

“She gives us a huge block for an opponent’s outside hitter to face,” Kovaci said. “She also adds the component of a stable back row attack, which we really haven’t had in the past.

A bright West Point career will likely not dim for Stremick once she is commissioned in May.

“Right now I’m deciding between branching aviation or engineering,” Stremick said. “I can’t wait to spend time out in the Army and see if it’s something that I want to make into a career.”

***

Breinling is the closest to home of all four seniors, but still separated by nearly all of New York State and three of the five Great Lakes. One of the quietest members of the team four years ago, Breinling has developed into an all-league caliber player in three years.

The Fremont, Mich., native, came to West Point by way of a more of a traditional pattern. Her high school coach, John Bull,  made the initial contact with Conley. After checking into the 6-1 hitter, Conley headed to Michigan for a home visit and was impressed by what he saw.

“Rachael has always been a hard-working, coachable player,” Kovaci said. “She has blossomed as a person since arriving here and that has showed on the court as well. Now she is more confident and demands the ball.”

Breinling was one of four cadets to spend the spring semester studying abroad in Zaragoza, Spain. She joined a club team, the Coronitas, and also kept up with her workouts in a local gym to stay in shape.

“For the first time in four years, I was a civilian, buying my own groceries and managing my own money,” Breinling said. “It was a wonderful learning experience and one that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

A Geography major, Breinling has been working extra hard to get her game back to the level that she left it in the fall. Just over one-third of the way through the non-conference schedule, Breinling has already settled in among the team’s top three hitters.

As far as what the future holds for Breinling, she hopes to branch either aviation or med service. She sure would not mind landing back in Europe at some point during her service either.

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Army has a combined 74-21 record with this four-some on the court, finished runner-up twice at the Patriot League Tournament and remains the only team to beat eight-time defending conference champion American, which the Black Knights have done twice.

“This is the strongest group of talent that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Lazzari said. “This is our best opportunity to maximize our talent as a cohesive group to make it to the championship.”

Facing the most brutal non-conference schedule in recent memory, Army hosted No. 6 Southern California last night in the marquee match of the West Point Challenge. The Black Knights have also topped Temple, Syracuse, Northeastern and Siena. 

Tough competition was not new to the team this fall, as the Black Knights participated in an invitation-only tournament last spring in Houston, Texas, joining national champion Penn State, Stanford and USC. Army beat Oklahoma and nearly topped Baylor during the trip.

“It was such a confidence-builder for us,” Kovaci said. “With the experience that we have and the success that these seniors have had, it was time to make that step.”

Kovaci is reluctant to look much further than next Friday night’s Patriot League opener at Lafayette.

“We take things one match at a time,” she said. “If we focus on the process, the outcome will take care of itself.”

 Tracy Nelson is an Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.

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