Svoboda's selection of Buffalo over Ohio State has led to historic career at UB
Kelly Svoboda knows winning isn't the same everywhere.
The Cleveland, Ohio, native was promised a roster spot on the Ohio State volleyball team, but head coach Geoff Carlston couldn't guarantee a full scholarship - she may have had to walk on. Ohio State was her "dream school" and one of the best programs in the country.
The Buckeyes weren't the only team, however, to draw her attention. She was offered a full scholarship and the opportunity to turn a struggling program into a contender at Buffalo.
She didn't have much time to make a decision, and Bulls head coach Todd Kress gave her an ultimatum. He told Svoboda Buffalo needed a commitment before she went to Miami, Fla., for her club team's national championship tournament.
Not many athletes would turn down the packed crowds and Big Ten environment for the dim lights of the Mid-American Conference. Svoboda did.
She didn't want to blend in as just another piece of a prestigious university's puzzle. She wanted to leave a lasting legacy.
"[The coaches] really talked about how it takes someone special to come to a program that's at the bottom and build it up, compared to going into an already great program," Svoboda said. "I embraced the challenge. I wanted the challenge."
Although the Bulls struggled through Svoboda's first three seasons in Buffalo (finishing 39-53, 13-35 MAC combined), she and the team have thrived this season. The Bulls (16-7, 4-6 MAC) opened the year winning their first 12 games, and Svoboda has won MAC East Defensive Player of the Week honors twice.
She has recorded 449 digs (19.5 per game)this season and ranks second in UB history with 1,758 career digs - just 126 behind all-time leader Lizaiha Garcia. Svoboda is on pace to break the mark.
Svoboda never considered going anywhere besides Ohio State before her club volleyball teammate, senior outsider hitter Christine Fritsche, told Svoboda she had accepted a scholarship from Buffalo. She told Svoboda to at least visit before committing to the Buckeyes.
Even after her teammate's endorsement, the decision to pick UB wasn't easy. She spoke at great length with Kelly Coughlin - her first Cleveland Volleyball Company coach and "the man who got [her] into serious volleyball" - before coming to a conclusion. Coughlin understood it was Svoboda's dream to play at Ohio State, but told her she could be part of a revolution at Buffalo.
Svoboda said there have been moments in her college career when she has faced both personal and team-related challenges and has thought to herself how much easier it would have been to go to Ohio State.
One of her biggest challenges was being thrown into a leadership role in her sophomore season. The Bulls had only one senior in 2011 and the remainder of the team was either freshmen or sophomores. Buffalo finished the season 11-19 and won only four MAC games in what Svoboda described as one of her most stressful years of volleyball.
This year, the team was in a much different position when Svoboda's dream school visited Alumni Arena on Sept 21. The Bulls were 12-0 and playing with an unfamiliar confidence. Although they were swept by the Buckeyes, Svoboda enjoyed her moment playing opposite the red and white colors she almost sported.
"We were really jacked up," Svoboda said. "It was great to play against them. It would have been better if we beat them, but it made me happy I chose UB even more because it made me look at where I've been and where I am now."
Svoboda calls the libero position her "passion" as she loves the grittiness that it demands. She puts her body through extreme agony with every full-body extension and roll on Alumni Arena's unforgiving wooden floor.
For Katie Svoboda, her mother, it's hard to watch her daughter play such a laboring position, as Svoboda sacrifices her body nearly every possession. Katie notices the plays when Svoboda rises to her feet a little slower, following a rough dive or when she misplays a ball.
"She gives me a heart attack," Katie said.
Katie and Bill Svoboda Sr. drive to nearly every one of Svoboda's games, even if it means missing work. Bill Sr. is the assistant principal at Trinity High School - Svoboda's alma mater - in Garfield Heights, Ohio, and Katie works for a health care company.
Svoboda grew up in a competitive household with her brother, Billy, who is three years older. As children, the two were curious to find out who was stronger, faster or a better swimmer. They often played pick-up basketball in the driveway.
But the competitions were far from friendly. Many of them ended in fistfights, tackles and Svoboda calling for her father to break it up.
"We didn't really get along [as kids]," Billy said. "I used to beat on her a lot and I kind of like to say that's why she's so tough now. I just used to really beat the crap out of her."
Billy played basketball and football in high school but also tried volleyball when he was in sixth grade. He played until eighth grade and competed with his sister."He thought he was better than me, but he wasn't," Svoboda said.
They were not the only two athletes in the family, however. Svoboda has 37 cousins and often played games like "capture the flag" with her cousins Danny and Brendan, who lived down the block.
Even capture the flag resulted in swings amongst the family members.
"Every time we played, there was a fight, and I swear I don't think there was a time me and my sister were on the same team," Billy said. "We just wanted to beat the other one all the time."
Svoboda's competitiveness has shined throughout her career. The Cleveland Volleyball Company was one of the best club volleyball teams in Ohio. In her final season, her 17-and-under team won the national championship in Miami, Fla.
She was the libero - as she is at UB - and the squad lost just one of 16 opening-round games throughout the tournament. After the preliminary rounds, Svoboda's team faced the only team it had previously lost to, in the tournament's championship game. They avenged the loss to win the U17 national championship.
"We knew going into games that we were going to win," Svoboda said. "There was no doubt."
She is reminded of this feeling with this year's Bulls' team. She first got it with the Bulls' matches against Central Florida and Valparaiso this season.
Svoboda said going into those games, they thought those teams may have been more talented, but the Bulls willed themselves to victory regardless.
The current core of Buffalo seniors was one of coach Kress' first recruiting classes at UB. They were brought in to a losing culture that had surrounded Buffalo volleyball.
"Up until this year, we've been working hard for it, but it just hasn't clicked yet," Svoboda said. "Now this year, it's finally all coming together. It feels now we are doing what we were supposed to do."
When her playing career is over, Svoboda wants to remain involved in the game and become a coach. She said she has had many great coaches in the past and wants to be able to use what she's learned to help other players.
Some of Svoboda's 37 cousins play competitive volleyball and Svoboda enjoys helping to coach and play with them when she is home.
Coughlin, her former coach and mentor, has seen her potential to coach from the time Svoboda was in ninth grade. He saw a tenacious player on the court who challenged not only herself, but also her teammates and coaches. Coughlin described her as one of the only players to critique the quality of a practice at the end.
"I told her back in her sophomore year of high school, one year after I had her, that I planned on being her assistant coach at a college in the future," Coughlin said.
Svoboda's personal success as she climbs up the Buffalo record books is no surprise to her coaches or family members. Her mother said just thinking about the games she's played gives her goose bumps.
"That girl was always at the gym, always working out," Billy said. "I'd come home from school and be like, 'Where's Kelly?' And [my parents] would say, 'She's at [Cleveland Volleyball Company],' and I'd just be like, 'Go figure.'"
Whether she wins a conference championship or not, Svoboda believes she made the right decision in selecting UB.
The Bulls had won 11 or more games in a season just three times in the past 13 years. This season, they surpassed that mark before their first loss.
The Bulls' winning ways are new to a program that has recorded just one winning season since 1996, and Svoboda's decision to pick Buffalo blue over Ohio State red has been a major factor in this season's success.
Svoboda and the entire senior class have accomplished almost everything they wanted coming in. Only one thing is missing: a MAC Championship.
Svoboda looks to accomplish her goal in her final year at Buffalo, as she did in her final season of club competition.