German player serves team with diversity

Amanda Vasil

Sophomore outside hitter and setter Anja Knabe-Paulson passes to a teammate at practice yesterday afternoon. Knabe-Paulson, who is from Germany, is a versatile player and is a strong hitter, server and setter.

Credit: Steve Schirra

With just a quick dial of a cell phone, the Kent State volleyball team had itself a powerful jump server.

It was only by chance that Kent State coach Mora Kanim met sophomore outside hitter/setter Anja Knabe-Paulsen. Kanim was recruiting at a volleyball convention in Kansas City when her college roommate, a UCLA assistant volleyball coach, called Kanim on her cell phone to watch a particular player on court 85. But Kanim was at court three.

Only after some convincing from her friend did Kanim make the walk down to the other end of the convention center just in time to watch Knabe-Paulsen serve.

“(Knabe-Paulsen) has a jump serve that is not only very good, but is also very consistent,” Kanim said. “Anja is about as consistent as any player I know. She’s got a jump serve that I would guess would put her in the top one percent of all players.”

Kanim also said she noticed Knabe-Paulsen’s versatility in hitting, passing and setting. Because of her strength in all four elements, Knabe-Paulsen was added to the Kent State roster, where she was put through training to become a setter. Although she didn’t set in high school, she worked hard to develop the skill to be able to set some matches during last year’s season, Kanim said.

“There’s no tougher position to master than setting,” Kanim said. “Anja’s worked hard at it, and she’s come a long way.”

Knabe-Paulsen also trains as a back-up outside hitter, passer and blocker. Although it’s tough to manage her time between all of those skills, it’s really nothing new to her.

After she decided to attend an American boarding school in Georgia as a foreign exchange student, Knabe-Paulsen joined a local high school team, in which she frequently played various positions in one match. The high school and team were small, which left little room for outstanding players, she said.

“I knew one other girl who could set up a ball,” Knabe-Paulsen said. “So I would pass every ball, she would set, and I would hit every ball.”

Into her senior year, she was able to move on to play in the Atlantic Crush club volleyball league, in which she was ultimately scouted and recruited by Kanim.

Her volleyball career didn’t begin in Georgia, however.

Originally from Schwarzenbek, Germany, Knabe-Paulsen has been playing volleyball since she was 4 years old with her father as her coach. Both her parents were active in the sport, so they were not only able to encourage her, but also able to teach her the ins and outs of volleyball.

Knabe-Paulsen credits her childhood friends with her first real taste of volleyball.

“My two friends from lower school both took me (to a practice), and they were both tall,” Knabe-Paulsen said. “The coach was so excited to see them both, and then there was me, little Anja. Nobody was really interested in me at that point. I was just a tagalong, but then I started to grow.”

As time went on, Knabe-Paulsen slowly began to play in more volleyball leagues, including the German national team in which she played doubles beach volleyball. Although she never participated in the Junior Olympics or Olympics, she practiced regularly with them.

Knabe-Paulsen has an advantage coming into Kent State because of her European background. The volleyball teams in Europe don’t necessarily train any harder than they do in the United States, but they tend to have a better understanding of the game in all facets, Kanim said.

“In the United States, we as coaches teach players at a very young age where to go and what to do, but (players) don’t always know why,” Kanim said. “Europeans are less organized, so it causes the players to struggle a bit more on their own.”

Knabe-Paulsen said she agrees that playing in the United States has taught her to be more disciplined, not only on the court, but off as well. She is one of three players on the team who achieved a 4.0 GPA last spring, and she also had the same success in the Fall 2004 semester. In the three semesters she’s been a student at Kent State, Knabe-Paulsen has managed to take 18 credit hours or more each semester while spending at least four hours a day training for volleyball.

“I promised my dad I would keep my grades up so I won’t get in trouble,” she said, while adding her dislike for the plus/minus system Kent State has recently adopted.

Although playing volleyball takes up a lot of her time, Knabe-Paulsen said she loves the experience and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“I’ve always looked for something like that where I can focus on volleyball and school,” she said. “And those are the two main things I have in my life right now. Plus, people actually care when I talk about volleyball.”

It’s not difficult finding people to talk to about volleyball, seeing as she has one of the most outgoing personalities Kanim said she has ever seen.

“I think she has more friends at Kent State than any other student at Kent State,” Kanim said. “She’s just that friendly.”

Sophomore middle blocker Anne Zakelj said Knabe-Paulsen has continually added encouragement and support to the team, while also consistently growing as an individual player.

“She’s always been positive and energetic,” Zakelj said. “I think over the past few years she’s learned not only to cheer, but now she says positive things that will help us while we’re playing. She doesn’t let much affect her, whether it’s a mistake she made or a mistake the team made. She’ll take what she needs out of it and brush it off and move on.”

Ultimately, Knabe-Paulsen hopes to go on to graduate school in either Spain or France to continue her studies in business management and international business. She also said she plans to add to her increasing knowledge of language, as she’s already conquered English and German.

Mostly conquered, that is.

“She’s getting better at it, but she has this German-Southern accent,” Zakelj said. “You can definitely hear the German accent, but then she’ll randomly throw in a ‘ya’ll.'”

Knabe-Paulsen said she’s looking forward to the end of the season, where she hopes to finish in a top Mid-American conference rank.

“My goal is to play to my potential and do the best I can to make the team better,” she said. “We just need to pull all our strength together to become MAC champs.”

Contact volleyball reporter Amanda Vasil at [email protected].