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“Sometimes you’ve just got to trust the process,” Laura Masciullo said.
With this particular utterance, the Hofstra senior and 2019 Colonial Athletic Association Preseason Player of the Year referred to her experience moving to the United States from Italy as a freshman on somewhat of a whim, speaking minimal English.
But the 2019 Hofstra volleyball team also adopted the same phrase as its mantra for the season. After winning the 2018 CAA Championship and making the program’s ninth NCAA Tournament appearance (where they lost to No. 7-seeded Nebraska in the first round), the Pride lost five major contributors—four to graduation and one to a transfer. Head coach Emily Mansur knew that her 2019 team could still contend for the top spot in the conference, but the results wouldn’t come right away.
The aforementioned “process” for Masciullo looked something like this: in April of her final year of high school, she was still trying to figure out what to do next. She could have jumped right into a professional volleyball career, like many elite players in Italy do at that age, but she had always been an excellent student, and she didn’t like the idea of her formal education ending after high school.
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In Europe, sports and school are kept mostly separate, and competing on a professional team doesn’t allow enough free time to pursue a degree on the side. So Masciullo set her sights on going to school in the U.S.
Italian junior national team coach Marco Mencarelli connected Masciullo with Mansur at Hofstra. She rushed to take the SAT and TOEFL exams, and had to wait until mid July to get her scores back. When they were good enough to earn her admission to Hofstra, she applied for the necessary paperwork through the embassy and booked a flight to New York City just two days after getting her visa.
“I was very lucky because it was a last minute decision and everything worked out in the end,” she said.
Mencarelli had told Mansur about Masciullo’s talent and work ethic, but Mansur admits that when the outside hitter first arrived on campus and started practicing, the coach’s reaction was, “I really hope she’s better than this.”
“She wasn’t expecting to come to U.S., so she was not training, she was not lifting, it was pretty last minute thing for her, so she just was not even close to the volleyball player that she was,” Mansur said. “After a month, she became the Laura that she is and we were like, ‘OK, I can trust (Mencarelli), it is the real thing.’”
Masciullo, now in the midst of her final year at Hofstra, has led Pride in kills for the past three seasons. She earned the 2016 CAA Rookie of the Year honor, First Team All-CAA the last three years, Most Outstanding Performer of the 2018 CAA Championship, and was one of 30 athletes nominated for the 2019 Senior CLASS Award.
She also settled into life off the volleyball court in Hempstead, New York, quite well. Her first semester, still learning English, she made a point to enroll in mostly math classes (“Numbers are very international,” she said), and she managed to head into winter break with a 4.0 GPA.
Today, just a week away from the start of the 2019 CAA Tournament, which Hofstra will host, Masciullo speaks almost perfect English, boasts a sparkling 3.97 GPA, and will soon graduate from Hofstra with a degree in mathematical business economics and a degree from China’s Dongbei University, with which Hofstra has a partnership, in global business.
Masciullo again leads the Pride in kills, but this time, she’s doing it from the right side—a change Masur said Masciullo wasn’t thrilled about at first. Aisha Skinner, 2018’s starting right side, transferred to Iowa after last season, and the Hofstra coaching staff struggled to find someone capable of stepping into the position. Early in the season, they tried out a couple different players, but eventually they moved Masciullo into the role.
“We had a conversation with her, it’s like, ‘Hey, if we really want to have a shot to compete for the (CAA) championship, we need you to make that change,’” Mansur said. “That’s when she said, ‘If I need to do this, you guys know I don’t like it, you guys know that’s not what I want, but I will do that for the team.’ And she’s been good, and her game is getting better every day and that’s what we hope she is going to be able to peak on the right side when tournament comes next week.”
Changing positions is nothing new for for Masciullo. When she moved from her hometown of La Spezia to Milan at age 15 to train with Italy’s national team program they asked her to switch from outside hitter to setter. She later transitioned back to the outside when she earned a spot on Igor Gorgonzola Novara’s Serie A2 team.
“(Masciullo is) a pretty powerful, very smart hitter,” Mansur said. “She can pass, she can play defense, she is a complete volleyball player. She set back in Italy. She hit outside, she hits right side, she played as a libero. She is a good volleyball player that has a good vision for the game. I think, above being as powerful as she is, that is what makes her so special.”
For its part, the Hofstra squad sits third in the CAA standings with a 10-4 conference record, 17-9 overall. In the first month of the conference season, the Pride stumbled a few times, losing to Elon in their conference opener, then Towson, James Madison, and Towson again. They’ve won their last three matches, however, and this weekend, positive results against James Madison (the current No. 2 in the standings) and Delaware (the No. 6) could elevate the Pride into the No. 2 spot in the league standings, which would mean a bye in the first round of the tournament.
“Since my first game this year, I see a completely different team,” Masciullo said. “We became a team. We got closer and closer after every game, after any win or any loss, and it was never a loss, it was always a lesson. That’s the best this year because we literally learned from our mistakes and we changed, so that’s why I think we got so much better by now. And the time to peak is right now.”
Playing for the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament provides plenty of motivation, but Masciullo will have yet another reason to play her best this weekend. Her family has never seen her compete live in a Hofstra uniform, but this weekend, the Masciullos will be up in the stands.
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“They have always been in those bleachers up there cheering for me—my dad, my mom, my sister, my grandma, everybody—and since I came here in the U.S., they are always in front of that screen, no matter if it’s 9 p.m. or 3 a.m.,” Masciullo said. “They always watch the game, I always get the message after the game, no matter if it’s a win or a loss, they are always the biggest supporters, and after four years, because they never have the chance in the past four years, actually seeing them up there again one more time... It’s just amazing.”
By trusting the process, Masciullo has arrived in a great place. Where the season will take her team, however, has yet to be determined.
Watch Masciullo and Hofstra play James Madison Friday night at 7 PM ET, streaming right here on FloVolleyball, and then tune in again next week as the Pride faces off against fellow CAA teams, including standings leader Towson, in the CAA Championship, which will also stream live on FloVolleyball.