As the Stony Brook volleyball team focuses on getting back to the America East Championship, it will be looking for another big season from sophomore outside hitter Leoni Kunz this fall.
After losing eight players following the 2019 season, Stony Brook relied heavily on production from its group of five incoming freshmen for the shortened 2020 season. While playing a significant role as a freshman in an unprecedented season is a tall task, Kunz answered the call by playing in all 56 of Stony Brook’s sets, leading the team in points and kills and finishing third in blocks.
Kunz didn’t know exactly what role she would have heading into her freshman season, but her experience playing internationally prepared her to lead the Stony Brook attack.
After winning back-to-back state championships as an eighth-grader and freshman in high school, Kunz spent her sophomore year as an exchange student in Germany. While Germany was fifth on her list of countries to study in, she’s grateful that she was sent to a familiar place.
Kunz’ mother is from Austria and her father is from Liechtenstein — a German-speaking country between Austria and Switzerland with a population of about 38,250. Kunz says she didn’t speak German very well before she went there in high school, but it came back to her quickly when she got there.
While studying in Germany at 15 years old, she played well above her age level on a top-division volleyball team. According to Kunz, she was intimidated at the first practice because she was the only player under 25 years old, but the team welcomed her with open arms and helped shape her playstyle.
“They just played a whole different style,” Kunz said in an interview with The Statesman. “It was a little more gritty, a little more scrappy than it is here.”
Playing with bigger, more experienced and scrappier players made Kunz more competitive, and some of her current technique is based on things she learned in Germany.
Prior to studying overseas, Kunz felt burned out from school and volleyball and even considered quitting volleyball, but her experience in Germany fueled her to keep playing.
“There were more people fighting for my position and they were more experienced, so it made me want it even more,” Kunz said. “At that time, I thought I was going to quit volleyball, but that kind of kept me in it and made me want to play more.”
Following her year in Germany, Kunz returned to the Webb School of Knoxville in Tennessee for her junior year and won her third state championship. She missed most of her senior season with a back injury, but she still played volleyball in 2019. This time, it was for the Liechtenstein national team against Luxembourg and Andorra.
Even at the national level, Kunz was a major factor for her team.
“The coach gave me a big role from the start,” Kunz said. “I had two practices before I had to play and a lot of responsibility was put on me, but it was honestly a lot of fun.”
Liechtenstein is such a small country that some fans of the national team recognized Kunz’s name and reached out to her father after the games. Kunz loves representing her father’s country and is excited to do so again this winter.
In the meantime, Kunz is tasked with leading the Stony Brook volleyball team back to the playoffs despite a 2-5 start to the fall season. The Seawolves were plagued by a slow start in the spring, but they have more time to clean up their play this season.
Kunz has picked up where she left off and is first on the team in kills, second in points, and third in blocks through the Seawolves’ first seven games. “Honestly, I’ve been just trying to not overthink and focus on what I can control,” she said. A self-proclaimed overthinker, Kunz says her coaches have helped her stay focused and trust her instincts.
While the pressure that comes with her role can build up at times, Kunz credits her teammates for keeping her spirits high. “The team support and help is what keeps me going,” Kunz said. “They keep me encouraged and hyped up to take big swings, so I owe it to them.”
With two weeks before conference play begins, Kunz is confident that the Seawolves will tighten up their play and isn’t worried about their slow start.
“That’s in the past and we know what we can do to get better,” she said.
Kunz believes this team is capable of winning the rest of their games if they follow their game plan and play cohesively.
In her second season, Kunz has only one goal: “I want to win the conference at home.” While it’s a lofty goal, it’s certainly attainable. Stony Brook has claimed two America East championships under head coach Kristin Belzung, with one taking place in Pritchard Gymnasium.
If Kunz keeps her play up and helps her team play together, she could be well on her way to achieving her goal and bringing Stony Brook Volleyball back to the top of the America East.