Mara Green almost passed up on professional volleyball entirely.
Plagued by injuries throughout her college career at Florida State, the middle blocker was ready to call it a career when she finished her fifth year of eligibility in December 2018.
“In college, I dealt with a lot of injuries, so I figured that the idea of playing pro was just not even an option,” Green said. “Then two days after my season ended my fifth year, someone came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, you should get in touch with Ryan [Jay Owens, owner of Elite Volley agency], and he’ll help you go pro.”
So she went for it, signed with Elite Volley, which still represents her, and landed her first contract with Pölkky Kuusamo in Kuusamo, a small town in the Northern Ostrobothnia region of Finland.
Green admits Finland wasn’t the destination she had originally pictured for her pro volleyball career—in fact her reaction when Owens mentioned it was, “Oh, they have volleyball up there? That’s cool.”—but she did well, and stayed healthy, helping her team finish second in the league and being named Match MVP for the Challenge Cup and Finnish Cup.
For her hard work last season, she got picked up by reigning Finnish League champ Hameenlinna. The move also came with an added bonus: in moving nine hours south, she gets to enjoy slightly warmer temperature and longer days.
“Last season when I got to Finland, one of my teammates said, ‘Mara, you know, it gets really dark here, so don’t get freaked out.’ And when she said that, I thought she meant like I’m going to look outside and I’m going to see the darkest dark that I’ve ever seen in my life,” Green said. “And I’m like, ‘I mean, I’m probably going to be asleep during those hours, so I’m not too worried about it.’”
Then, one morning, she woke up at 8 a.m. and the sun hadn’t appeared yet. After practice, around 10:30, the sun had just peeked over the horizon.
“I said, ‘Oh, this is what she meant,’” Green said. “Then the sun started setting at like 1:30.”
Now in her second season in Finland, Green is a pro in a variety of ways. Although she had given up on becoming fluent in Finnish (often listed as one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn), she knows to look up a restaurant’s menu before arriving so she has time to text her Finnish teammates to make sure she orders the right thing. This, of course, is something she learned from experience after accidentally ordering a pizza with tuna on it.
“I hate tuna,” Green said.
Last year, Pölkky Kuusamo finished fourth in the Finnish league standings, but so far this season, Hameenlinna ranks second with an 18-4 record, close behind the leader Viesti (19-2).
A young squad, Hameenlinna is made up of mostly native Fins, with just five foreign players and only one other American, 2017 Denver grad Kayla Principato.
Green lives with the team’s youngest player, 16-year-old Laura Laukkanen. At first, Green felt nervous, wondering, what on Earth am I going to talk to this 16-year-old Finnish girl about? Turns out, she’s very mature and easy to talk to, so things have worked out. And when Laura goes home to visit family, Green gets the place to herself.
Another player to watch on the Hameelinna roster is 19-year-old Suvi Kokkonen. Green first encountered Kokkonen on the opposite side of the net, and was impressed by her talent before finding out she was only 17 at the time.
“She’s definitely going to be a big name that you end up hearing about in the next few years,” Green said.
Hameenlinna earned a spot in the 2018-19 CEV Champions League, meaning Green and her teammates have the pleasure, and pain, of playing against some of the best players in the world. It’s just the second time Hameenlinna has played in Europe’s top club competition and the only time they’ve advanced to the group stage.
Four matches into Pool B, which also includes Dinamo Kazan, Eczacibasi VitrA Istanbul and Uralochka-NTMK Ekaterinburg, Hameenlinna is winless and sitting at the bottom of the table. But Green could find plenty of positive takeaways from the experience.
“To play against literally the top players in the world, not, like ‘Oh these are some of the best players,’ like I am literally playing against the top players in the world,” Green said. “Lauren Gibbemeyer and Jordan Larson, and like I’m playing against the highest paid female volleyball player in the world. And all three of them are on the same team.”
That team is Eczacibasi Istanbul, which is not only undefeated in the Turkish league, but 4-0 in Champions League, sitting atop the Pool B standings having dropped just one set. In two meetings, the most points Hameenlinna has scored against the Turkish powerhouse is 20.
“It’s hard to not be intimidated when you’re going against these teams, but I guess as the match progresses and as you start playing, you kind of realize like, OK, they are regular people too,” Green said. “They are regular volleyball players too, who screw up and make mistakes and you know, they just happen to do these things very, very well.”
A breakthrough moment for Green occurred in Hameenlinna’s second Champions League match, a road battle versus Ekaterinburg. She tallied nine points in eight kills and an ace and got blocked just once, her only hitting error in the match.
“It was just kind of an eye opener for me, like, ‘Mara, if you can kind of hold your own against these teams, then just imagine where you could go if you just really buckled down and stuck to your craft and just really worked on it,’” she said. “That that was also kind of a confidence boost that I needed.
"Especially when you get in your low times, you always think, ‘Oh, well, maybe I can call it a career. Like, maybe it’s time for me to move into the real world,’ but after playing those matches, I said, ‘Absolutely not, I want to move up and forward and see how far I can go and for however long I can go.’”
Eventually, Green hopes that means moving on to one of the more prestigious European leagues like the ones in France, Germany, and Italy.
Finland has been a good starting point, Green said, a slightly higher level than she was used to in college, but nothing she couldn’t handle. Now, she’s working to build enough impressive highlight reels to get picked up elsewhere.
Not a bad start for someone who wasn’t sure she was cut out for professional volleyball.