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Bouncing Back

Net Gain
Karolina Bartkowiak journeyed halfway around the world to play volleyball for the U.

by John Youngren

On the court, she’s formidablean imposing 6-feet-2, with a punishing style and a tremendously physical game. As a freshman, she finished third among the University of Utah volleyball players in blocks, with 1.10 per game.

Off the court, she’s pleasant and unassuming-even a bit shy. Her bashful smile flashes briefly, and she seems embarrassed to be the center of attention.

Karolina Bartkowiak

But you get the feeling that it’s not going to be that way much longer.

“My coach wants me to talk a little more on the court,” says Karolina Bartkowiak, heading into her sophomore year, when asked if she’s turning into a leader on the team. “We still have some great leaders on this team. But [the coaches] want me to express myself a little more.”

So consider that the next step in Bartkowiak’s rather amazing journey-one that began in Wroclaw, Poland, of all places. The daughter of Elzbieta and Krzysztof Bartkowiak, Karolina made an early impression with her exceptional athletic ability. By the time she was completing grammar school, her parents made what was to be a huge, life-altering decision that would impact the whole family.

“They decided that [moving to the United States] would give me the best opportunity to get an education,” which also included athletics, Karolina says now, shaking her head at the novelty of it all.

Relocating to the U.S. wasn’t as random as sticking a pin in a map; rather, family ties directed Karolina and her mother to a Chicago suburb, where the Bartkowiaks had relatives. (Karolina’s older brother was attending college in Poland, and it would have been difficult for him to transfer to the U.S., so her father decided to stay with him there. Eventually, her father found a job that paid well, and the two remain in Poland to this day.) And so, Karolina began seventh grade in America without being able to speak English or understand much about American culture.

“I was shocked when I first got there,” Bartkowiak says today. “I was scared to go to school ... It was huge. Seventh grade was very hard.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was her athletic ability and interest in sports that helped Bartkowiak eventually get her feet on the ground. While her English that first year was limited to “How are you?” and “What’s your name?” by the time she started playing volleyball and basketball, she was forced to find ways to communicate better with her new teammates.

“It became easier,” she says. “I just got more comfortable.”

By her freshman year in high school, Bartkowiak began playing club volleyball for the Kane County Juniors, which is when she really hit her stride. She was at the center of a group of athletic friends who rallied around her, making her feel more at home. She was a four-time MVP of the club team, and was also playing both basketball and volleyball at West Aurora High School.

By her junior year, Bartkowiak decided to forgo basketball and concentrate entirely on volleyball.

“I really felt I had to focus on one or the other,” she says. “Sometimes, I regret quitting basketball, but I think I’m better in volleyball.”

Indeed. Two years later, Bartkowiak was a two-time all-conference and all-area honoree in the sport. In her senior year, she had 260 kills (a successful attack that terminates a play or rally), 95 blocks, and 195 digs (recovery of the ball close to the court floor). She was also an honor roll student and a National Honor Society member who graduated in the top 40 of her class.

Bartkowiak was a very long way from Wroclaw, Poland. And the distance was about to increase even more.

Near the end of her junior year in high school, Bartkowiak was spotted by Utah assistant coaches Burt Fuller and Heather Olmstead at a volleyball tournament in Reno, Nev. They convinced Utah’s head volleyball coach, Beth Launiere, to visit the Chicago area and see Bartkowiak play that fall. By then, Karolina had already made a recruiting visit to Salt Lake City and had a good feeling about the U, the team, and the city. “I just knew, ‘This is it for me,’ ” she recalls.

Though two schools much closer to Chicago (and her mother) had also recruited herButler and, especially, Northern IllinoisBartkowiak was sold on playing for the Utes.

Karolina Bartkowiak

Still, “It was hard for me,” she says now, admitting to mixed emotions over leaving her mother, who still works and lives in the Chicago area. “That was a huge thing for me-my mom living by herself, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to come to my games. But I wanted to come here. And I had to do what I wanted to do.”

“One thing led to another,” Launiere says, still expressing some wonderment about Bartkowiak and her choice. “But Karolina really felt this was the best option for her.”

It certainly worked out well for the Utes. After a 28-4 overall (16-0 conference) season in 2006-a school record-the team faced some unexpected roster changes and a tough schedule during the 2007 playing season in what turned out to be a rebuilding year, with a 15-15 overall (9-7 in Mountain West Conference play) record.

Karolina’s mother, Elzbieta, did get to visit Salt Lake City and see her daughter play last season, but not so her father, Krzysztof, who nevertheless follows her exploits via the Internet. “He gets so excited. He checks it every day,” she says.

“Karolina is a good team player,” Launiere observes. “She’s a good athlete who brings a strong personality and tremendous attitude to the team. She is a strong, physical player.”

Bartkowiak also smoothly handled what for a lesser athlete might have been a major disruption: Early in the season, she switched positions-from the middle to the right side, a position the lifelong middle blocker had never played before.

Her freshman year at the collegiate level was tough enough-“At the beginning, I was so nervous; I was getting used to a new team and teammates,” she says nowbut changing positions created a new level of challenge.

“It was kind of surprising,” she says, again calling on her humble, anything-for-the-team attitude. “I had always played another position. But at the first practice, I decided, ‘I like it this way.’ ”

The Utes liked it that way, too- crediting Bartkowiak’s move, among other changes, as being central to the team’s improvement over the course of a frustrating, up-and-down season. She finished with 226 kills, 125 blocks, and 59 digs during her freshman season. She also earned MWC All-Academic honors.

“[Bartkowiak] demonstrated unselfishness and motivation all year,” Launiere says.

And Bartkowiak is one reason the Utah coach is more upbeat about the 2008 composition of her team, which starts its season in August aiming to improve on last year’s .500 record.

“By the end of [the 2007] season we became a very good volleyball team,” Launiere says. “It took a lot of hard work from where we started and a lot of determination from the players, coaches, and everyone involved.”

Seniors Lori Baird, Kathryn Haynie, and Emillie Boone are all expected to be key contributors to the Utes in ’08, along with sophomores Keisha Fisher and Stephanie Shardlow and junior Chelsey Sandberg.

And not to be forgotten is Bartkowiak-the athlete who’s traveled almost halfway around the world to compete for the Utes. She’s certainly ready.

“Of course you think you could always have done better,” she says now, thinking back on her freshman year. “But that comes in time. I think I’m so much more mature now than I was last year. I’m looking forward to it.”

Aren’t we all?

— John Youngren BA’88 works in advertising for Love Communications in Salt Lake City and has written many previous articles for Continuum.

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A Season to Remember

The U of U women’s basketball team racks up a score of accolades.
Leilani Mitchell
Leilani Mitchell
Elaine Elliott
Elaine Elliott
Morgan Warburton
Morgan Warburton

The University of Utah women’s basketball team had an undefeated 16-0 Mountain West Conference season, earning its sixth MWC regular-season title, and at one point held a 22-game winning streak. The team led the MWC in seven statistical categories-including scoring (68.6), field goal percentage (.468), and three-point percentage (.430) -and landed a berth in the NCAA tournament. Only one other MWC women’s team has gone undefeated through the regular season: The 2000-01 Utes.

The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association named University of Utah head coach Elaine Elliott the Region 7 Coach of the Year. Elliott also received Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year accolades for the fourth time, after leading Utah to a 27-4 record this season, one of the best in her 25 years at the helm. (Utah’s 27 wins tied the total won by the 2005-06 Utes and was one off the school record of 28, set by the 2000-01 team).

University of Utah senior Leilani Mitchell was named a regional finalist for All-America honors by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. Mitchell, a 5’5“ guard, averaged 16.8 points and 7.5 assists in guiding the Utes to their perfect 16-0 record in conference play and national ranking. Mitchell was also named the Mountain West Conference’s Player and Newcomer of the Year (she transferred to Utah after three years at Idaho) and netted third-team All-America honors from She was promptly drafted by the Phoenix Mercury in the second round of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) draft, marking the Utes’ third WNBA pick.

Utah also had three players named to the all-conference team. Mitchell and Morgan Warburton received first-team honors, while Kalee Whipple got a second-team distinction. This marks junior Warburton’s second consecutive first-team selection. She ranked first in the league in scoring (17.8 ppg), first in free-throw percentage (.917), sixth in field-goal percentage (.450), and ninth in steals (1.75 spg) over the conference campaign. Whipple, a sophomore, is also honored for the second straight year, having earned third-team honors a season ago. This year, the 6-0 forward led the league in field goal percentage (.529) and in three-point percentage (.500). Mitchell and Warburton were the only unanimous selections on the all-conference first-team.

“This was an amazing season for us,” says Elliott. “It is always the goal to win the regular season and go unbeaten in conference. We take a lot of pride in what we’ve accomplished.”