Volleyball assistant’s international ties attract talent

Akiko Hatakeyama developed connections while playing professionally in Europe.

The 13-player volleyball roster consists of players who come from five different states and six different countries. For coach Bakeer Ganesharatnam and his staff, this diverse group is in no way a coincidence.

Of the eight American players on the team, there are no Pennsylvania natives. Former middle blocker Kirsten Overton and former outside hitter Caroline Grattan were the only two players from in state last season.

The absence of in-state players isn’t because the coaching staff doesn’t try to recruit locally, assistant coach Ren Cefra said. But players from Pennsylvania have big-name programs like Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh to choose from as well.

The Nittany Lions won four straight NCAA titles from 2007-10 and claimed back-to-back championships in 2013 and 2014. On Friday, Penn State, then ranked No. 5 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, beat then top-ranked Stanford University.

Pittsburgh reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004 last season and has won 73 games in its last three seasons.

Temple has won 62.8 percent of its games during Ganesharatnam’s six-plus seasons, which started in 2011. The Owls have won 20 or more games in each of the last three seasons, but haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2002.

High-level volleyball talent has historically come out of the West Coast and Midwest, Ganesharatnam said. Most of the time, prospects from the Northeast commit to Penn State and other schools in Power 5 conferences, he added.

With a limited talent pool in the Northeast, Temple has made an effort to find ways to attract prospects from around the world. Recruiting overseas, however, comes with its obstacles.

“International clubs put a lot of time, effort and funds into training prospects,” Ganesharatnam said. “They’re not just going to give them away. They have to trust you and understand that you’re going to make [the prospects] better and possibly send them back after they graduate so they can become professional players.”

Temple’s primary way to gain trust from international programs is through associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Akiko Hatakeyama, who played professionally across Europe while also coaching club teams and summer camps.

Her connections to professional and club circuits in Europe are a valuable advantage Temple uses to attract international players.

Hatakeyama, a 1999 alumna who played volleyball, is appreciative of the opportunities Temple offered to continue her athletic career. She hopes recruits realize they can have the same opportunity if they play for the Owls.

When it comes to stateside recruiting, the coaching staff primarily attends national competitions to scout players from around the United States. During the summer, Hatakeyama, Ganesharatnam and Cefra traveled to Florida and Minnesota to survey talent.

In June, Temple’s coaching staff attended the 44th Amateur Athletic Union Girls’ Junior National Volleyball Championships in Orlando, Florida. Prospects who are 18 years old and younger showcased their skills for 12 days. A week later, the staff traveled to the 2017 Girl’s Summer Junior National Championships in Minneapolis to look for future Owls.

The trio also visited Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Georgia during this year’s recruiting process.

Hatakeyama said one of the main reasons recruits consider Temple is it is in a major city like Philadelphia.

“All the players that play here wanted to come to Temple,” Hatakeyama said. “Even though they’ve had other choices, they chose to be here. Being in a big city, it’s easier for them to travel and experience opportunities.”

The coaching staff continues to scout players every chance it gets. With the rising popularity of club and AAU tournaments, the recruiting process has become much more advanced for Ganesharatnam and his staff, Ganesharatnam said.

The team has started recruiting incoming classes for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. So far, the Owls have one verbal commitment from the high school class of 2020 and Ganesharatnam hopes to garner more.

“Being able to have student athletes who come from all sorts of different backgrounds and different areas of the country working together towards a common goal of being successful is a great thing,” Ganesharatnam said. “I think Temple University is a great institution because of the diversity it resembles, and at times like this, we are very proud of representing the university with the team we have.”

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