BETHLEHEM, Pa. – As a sophomore, Ana Vrhel is completing her first full offseason as a college athlete. What an offseason it was.
Vrhel, a middle blocker for Lehigh, traveled with her team to China for three weeks. While the Berwyn native and Nazareth graduate joked there wasn’t much ice to use after matches and a lot of the team came back with nagging injuries, it was an unforgettable trip on and off the court.
The Mountain Hawks hit up many of the major tourist attractions — the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square – but they also spent a lot of time taking on Chinese club teams.
“It was a great time,” Vrhel said. “We got to experience the culture and we also got to play really good teams.”
Vrhel said the Chinese players spend more time practicing because they have more of a professional model as opposed to the scholastic sports model in the U.S. She also noticed a slightly different style of play, notably scrappier play.
“They use their shots more,” she said. “They’re not as tall as the American players. They have some height, but they are smart about where they play the ball.”
With that experience behind Vrhel and the Mountain Hawks, they are hoping to have a strong season in the Patriot League. After going 12-14 overall and 8-6 in conference last season, Vrhel is hoping the team can move up the league standings.
“I think we have a really strong team,” Vrhel said. “We have six players coming in. We learned how to play together really well in China. I think we’re probably one of the best teams in the Patriot League.”
Vrhel quickly took to the eastern Pennsylvania school, which is just over an hour north of Philadelphia. During her recruitment, Vrhel emailed the previous Lehigh coach, but didn’t hear back.
When current coach Bob Bertucci took over in 2011, he liked the playing style of then-Mountain Hawk Paige Kruse. Like Vrhel, Kruse came from First Alliance Volleyball Club and that club connection made Bertucci reach out to Vrhel.
Once she discovered that Lehigh valued academics and athletics equally and visited the campus, she was sold. At Lehigh, all classes are in the morning, which forces practices to take place after school similar to a high school schedule.
“It’s great because they’re really high on academics here,” Vrhel said. “It’s cool to focus on academics, but still be a Division I athlete.”
After her full and busy offseason, Vrhel is expecting bigger things this fall.
“Coming into preseason you know what to expect,” she said. “Last year I was really nervous about the intensity and how many hours you’d be in the gym.”