All-American Interview Series

In the 33-year history of Kansas State volleyball, the Wildcats have had five All-Americans grace the floor of historic Ahearn Field House: Dawn Cady (1999), Liz Wegner (1999 and 2000), Lauren Goehring (2003), Gabby Guerre (2003) and Vali Hejjas (2004). The Kansas State Sports Information Office will look at what these five women have been doing since their playing days ended in a five-part summer interview series.

 

In the first of the five-part series, K-State Sports Information tracked down Vali Hejjas in Europe while she was playing in the French first league with Istres and exchanged e-mails to find out what the former “Hungarian Hammer” has been up to since leaving K-State in the spring of 2006.

 

Hejjas concluded her brief two-year career at K-State with the third-highest kills per game average in school history (3.72) and became just the fourth player in school history to tally 30 kills in a single match. During her All-American season in 2004, she finished with 437 kills (3.90 kpg) and tallied 22 matches with 10 or more kills and four matches of 20 or more.

 

In addition to earning her All-American designation in 2004, Hejjas claimed All-Big 12 first team accolades and All-District honors from the AVCA. During her junior campaign in 2003, she was named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and an All-Big 12 first team selection.

 

 

K-State Sports Information Dept. (KSUSID): The last time Kansas State fans had heard from you, Vali, you had finished your career at Kansas State in the second round of the 2004 NCAA Tournament in Los Angeles as a 2004 AVCA honorable mention All-American. What have you been up to since and where are you currently at?

 

Vali Hejjas (VH): A lot of things have happened since then. I played for the Hungarian National team in 2005 and the spring of 2006. I also had shoulder surgery in the summer of 2005. I earned my bachelor's degree in international agribusiness from K-State in the spring of 2006, and I got a professional contract in the French first league (Pro A) with Istres for the 2006-07 season.

 

We are currently ranked 8th out of 13 teams. The competition is very tough, and almost anybody can beat anyone on a given night, except Cannes, who leads the league by far. We have six games left, and hopefully we can finish strong and climb up to 6th or 7th place.

 

 

KSUSID: Has it been a dream come true to play professional volleyball in Europe? How difficult was it to find a comfortable situation with a team? Are the women's professional volleyball leagues popular with fans?

 

VH: If going to Kansas State was a dream come true, playing professionally was definitely another one. Playing against the best players is a true challenge and I am enjoying every minute of it. I had a preference to play in France, because my brother lives here, the league is pretty competitive with a decent wage, and I wanted to learn the language.

 

After I decided which country I wanted to play in, my agent set up try-outs for me. I happened to sign with the first team, because they were very nice and we agreed on the details quickly. I also had a good feeling that this might be the team that suits me the best.

 

As far as the fans, we get a few hundred for each game. Some teams have great fans, but only a few get more than a thousand. One thing I can certainly tell you, people are definitely not that into the sport here as they are at K-State.

 

 

KSUSID: What are some of the things that you initially overcame to get to where you are at right now?

 

 

VH: The surgery I had in the summer of 2005 was definitely one of them. I needed a long recovery and lots of patience with it. For a year and a half I did not play organized volleyball on a regular basis (except a few games with the national team, and a few beach volleyball games). So, not being able to compete was hard, but I had a dream and it helped me to stay focused. The coaches also let me practice with the team even after I exhausted my eligibility, so I could stay in shape.

 

The second one would be to become a "complete" player and not having weaknesses in any elements of the game (attacking, receiving, blocking, serving and defense). That was something we constantly worked on with the coaches at K-State and I can’t be grateful enough for that. They prepared me the best way possible to play professional.

 

Having the best coaches for years also has a downside. It is harder to play for a different coach now who wants to teach me different techniques. I used to ask questions all the time from Suzie, Jeff and Justin, because I wanted to understand why were doing certain things. They always had explanations that made sense to me. In the professional leagues, you don’t ask questions. You do what you are told to do.

 

 

KSUSID: How has your degree from Kansas State benefited you so far? (Hejjas graduated from Kansas State in May of 2006 with a degree in agribusiness.)

 

 

VH: I have not had any job opportunities towards my degree yet, so I am not exactly sure where I stand in the job market and how European companies accept American degrees. Playing volleyball is something that I would like to do for as long as possible.

 

From the classes I took at Kansas State, I learned a lot about how to present myself which is very important in a world when people rely so much on first impression. Giving presentations and writing essays was truly beneficial and finance classes also helped me to manage money.

 

 

KSUSID: When you first arrived at K-State from Hungary in 2003, what did you know about Kansas, the university and the team you were joining? What were your first impressions of the school?

 

 

VH: I knew that Kansas was in the middle of the US and that there is no NBA team anywhere close. I love the NBA, so that made me a little sad. I didn’t know much about the school either, and the rivalries it has with other Big 12 schools.

 

I received a very warm welcome from everyone and the hospitality has never changed. I was amazed at how nice people were in the Midwest. Going to school that far from home, you need to feel that in order to "survive" without your loved ones. My teammates, their parents and the close friends I made during the years treated me like family, invited me to their homes which made the adjustment and everyday life so much easier.

 

I also want to emphasize the eternal positive attitude and optimism that describe Americans. This experience has helped me learn how to stay positive and to always look at the bright side of life.

 

 

KSUSID: How did head coach Suzie Fritz and her assistant coaches Jeff Grove and Justin Ingram help you adjust to life at Kansas State? How did your teammates help you make the adjustment?

 

 

VH: As I mentioned it before, without any doubt they are the best coaches I ever worked with. They tried to help me to adjust as fast as possible not only to volleyball but to college life also. I could go to them anytime with any problems and they would help me to find the best solution or pointing me into the right direction. Their patience and enthusiasm to make us better players on a day-to-day basis, is amazing. I broke a lot of bad habits with their help and my game improved significantly in just 2 years. I give them a call every once in a while to check in and see how things are going.

 

My teammates were the same way. Almost all of them had more experience in being a student-athlete than I did. So, literally I could turn to anyone for help and they would not hesitate to help me out. Not particularly with homework (for that I had tutors) but rather with slang words, customs and cultural differences.

 

 

KSUSID: Did you ever imagine making as big an impact as you did on the 2003 Big 12 title team? Did you ever think you would win a collegiate title in your first year at an American university?

 

 

VH: As far as making an impact, I think that team had a bigger impact on me than I had on them. It was a great group of players coming together ready to go with an amazing work ethic and experience. While I was trying to fit in and learn our system, they provided great guidance and leadership.

 

Looking back, I am extremely proud of what we achieved in that year but in that very moment I was not sure what it meant. It was after the 2004 season when I realized the significance of that Big 12 title and could really appreciate it.

 

 

KSUSID: What did you think of the nickname (The Hungarian Hammer) Kansas State play-by-play announcer Brian Smoller dubbed you with?

 

VH: I know it is common in the US to put nicknames on people, so I was not really surprised. It’s rather funny, so I want to thank Brian for it.

 

 

KSUSID: In your final year at K-State in 2004, the Wildcats brought in Rita Liliom from Budapest, Hungary? How did you help Rita adjust to life at K-State? Have you stayed in contact with Rita since you have left? If so, how did you help her through her knee injury at the start of the 2006

season?

 

 

VH: After her slow start, she adjusted really well and was on the right track to become a terminal attacker. I was very sad to hear about her knee injury and I told her that every bad thing carries a good thing along with it. I think for her it was extra time with school and being able to graduate in December '08, so she can go play professionally right after the season, without missing out on 7-8 months of competitive volleyball.

 

I talked to her a few times since her surgery but with the schedule student-athletes' have and the time difference it is hard to get a hold of anybody. I got to talk to her the other day and she seemed very excited about going to Puerto Rico with the team. She will bounce back fast, I am sure, and will leave a huge mark on the program.