When she arrived at Villanova University last year for her first days of college, Dana Tartazky had good reason to feel a bit more anxious than the average student.
"I was shaking," she admitted. "I couldn't talk. I was in shock."
For Tartazky, who grew up in Haifa, Israel, it was the first time that she had ever been to the United States, and she was uncomfortable speaking English nonstop. As a new member of the women's volleyball team, however, she could take solace in the fact that she was not the only Israeli on campus.
The outside hitter was recruited by Villanova coach Gilad Doron, who played for 10 years on the Israeli national team. Doron is confident that Israeli players can be competitive against top collegiate opposition — so confident, that he offered two of them full athletic scholarships.
So far, his prediction has been right.
Tartazky, now a 22-year-old sophomore, is third in the team in kills this season, and has performed well after suffering an abdominal injury that cut her freshman campaign short.
The other Israeli on the team, Alona Cherkez, 23, who emigrated from Ra'anana, led the team in kills last season, thanks to a devastating right-handed spike. She's on pace to lead in that category again this year.
"They're the main passers and the main hitters," said Doron, in his third season as Villanova's coach. "When they play well, we have a much better chance of being successful."
After a slow start, the Wildcats are 7-5 in the Big East Conference and 16-13 overall, as of Tuesday. They won seven of their last nine games, and currently occupy eighth place in the conference. If they finish eighth or better at the end of the regular season, they will gain a birth in the Big East Championships.
While scouting players from across the world may be arduous for some coaches, Doron is exposed to Israeli players through his involvement in international play. As coach of the U.S. women's team at the Pan American Maccabi Games in Santiago, Chile, in December of 2003, he got a chance to see Tartazky play for the Israeli team.
Remarkably, Doron never met Cherkez or even saw her play until she enrolled at Villanova — he simply trusted her volleyball résumé, as well as recommendations from friends still involved with Israeli volleyball.
At 22 and 23 years old, respectively, both Tartazky and Cherkez are older than typical college sophomores, due to their obligation to serve in the Israeli army.
They're maturity was a big reason Doron wanted them on the team in the first place.
"They are adding a different outlook and culture, and teaching the other girls something, and it makes us more versatile," said the coach.
The team has responded to their leadership, voting Tartazky to the role of co-captain this season.
Off the court, Tartazky and Cherkez have become fast friends in their year-and-a-half at Villanova. They even have the same major: business.
While Doron and Tartazky are Jewish (Cherkez is not), they have no problem being affiliated with a Catholic university. (Villanova bills itself as Augustinian). For example, Tartazky said that she told a dean she's uncomfortable taking a Catholic theology course, and so she'll be allowed to take a different class in its place.
"The university is very supportive of us," said Doron. "People are very understanding of the differences and where we come from."
Doron noted that he has his eye on another Israeli for next season, and hopes that a positive experience for Tartazky and Cherkez will spark more interest in Israelis coming to play for Villanova.
"I'm sure there are players that know they are having fun here," he said, "and if we can get players that can help us, we'll continue the tradition."