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For the kill: Kullerkann ends journey from native Estonia with Pitt volleyball

Kadi+Kullerkann+celebrates+a+point+for+Pitt+volleyball.++Heather+Tennant+%7C+Staff+Photographer
Kadi Kullerkann celebrates a point for Pitt volleyball.  Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Kadi Kullerkann celebrates a point for Pitt volleyball. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Kadi Kullerkann celebrates a point for Pitt volleyball. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

By David Leftwich / Staff Writer

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Kadi Kullerkann did not think a recruiting trip to the United States five years ago would involve babysitting a Marquette volleyball coach’s child.

She also didn’t think the trip from her native Estonia was the first step on her path to playing at Pitt, a path marked with four seasons playing volleyball for the University of Houston, a major injury and an All-American honor.

But now that Kullerkann is here, playing her graduate student season for head coach Dan Fisher, she has completed the journey that began in her hometown of Keila, Estonia.

Early in her recruitment from International University Audentes in Estonia, then-Marquette assistant coach Craig Dyer was with his newborn son and Kullerkann in the airport to send her off following her visit. Dyer had to stepp away to take care of a problem with Kullerkann’s flight, leaving Kullerkann to watch the baby.

“She was literally his first babysitter,” Dyer said.

Now, Kullerkann still sees Dyer frequently, as he is Pitt’s second-year assistant volleyball coach, where he recruited Kullerkann for her final volleyball season after four standout years at Houston.

Despite her multiple changes in scenery, her new teammates said Kullerkann has provided a calming, veteran presence on the team.

“She just brings a lot of maturity to the team,” said redshirt junior middle hitter Jenna Potts. “She’s not up and down emotionally, which is very good to be around on a team.”

She has flourished on the court, tallying a team-leading 229 kills and 3.58 per set, helping Pitt jump out to its 14-4 start.

Despite her recent accomplishments, Kullerkann has navigated a tough path to success.

After her senior high school season in Estonia, Kullerkann sent match footage to different schools around the United States. This was an unorthodox recruitment — coaches typically reach out to recruits — but after establishing herself with U.S. coaches, her recruitment began to intensify.

“I got pretty good feedback,” Kullerkann said. “[I] ended up being [contacted by] around 35 schools.”

Kadi Kullerkann is an essential part of the Pitt volleyball team.  Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Kadi Kullerkann is an essential part of the Pitt volleyball team. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Kullerkann narrowed down her list to five schools with competitive volleyball and academic programs with a strong graphic design program. Kullerkann chose to commit to Houston and its innovative Digital Media program.

Living on her own through boarding school helped make the transition from Estonia to Houston rather seamless. Kullerkahn said her 24-year-old sister Liis, who had already been in the United States playing at Ohio University, helped ease her adjustment by having a familiar face and source of advice in the country.

This quick transition paid off when, as a freshman at Houston, Kullerkann became an early contributor to the team. She found her footing toward the end of the season with a career-high 20 kills against Marshall on Nov. 4, 2011.

Kullerkann expected this late success to have naturally been a springboard into a great sophomore season, but a major injury cut it short. One set into the season, she took a medical redshirt when she suffered a season-ending ACL tear in her knee.

“I tried to stay positive during the whole rehab process,” Kullerkann said. “My whole goal was coming back stronger than before.”

The next two seasons, Kullerkann came back to the court and performed better than ever,  putting up historic numbers in her senior season in 2014. She played in all 32 matches, starting in 28 of them, and totaled 644 kills, placing her third in the nation.

“It feels powerful,” she said. “I would tell myself to be unstoppable, and that’s pretty much what it felt like.”

Besides her volleyball prowess, Kullerkann excelled in the classroom. She was on her conference’s honor roll every year she attended Houston and finished with a 3.82 GPA.

Kullerkann started planning for graduate school after her junior season at Houston. She knew after graduation she would have one more year of eligibility for volleyball, and wanted to obtain an MBA at the same time.

This time, she didn’t have to find a new home by herself.

Houston’s coach sent a letter to every Division I coach in the nation that indicated Kullerkann’s interest in playing volleyball during graduate school. According to Pitt head coach Dan Fisher, Pitt had interest in her before her senior season — but after her All-American season at Houston, he knew she would be a great fit.

For Kullerkann, it was more about finding the best graduate school and then figuring out how she would fit in on the volleyball team. Her decision came down to Kansas and Pitt. Each had similar academic programs, but Kullerkann said there was one main deciding factor.

“At that point it came down to being in a city,” said Kullerkann, who is taking marketing classes to earn her MBA.

She also liked Fisher and his program. Pitt had a completely different style of play from Houston, which she saw as a great learning opportunity. Kullerkann also appreciated Pitt’s integration of offensive European and scrappy U.S. styles of play.

This decision also drastically improved the Panthers’ volleyball program by earning Fisher a nationally renowned recruit.

“I would say Kadi was our first big-time recruit,” Fisher said. “That was the first time we had gone head-to-head with a known quantity and won.”

Fisher said her power arm provides his team with a major advantage on the court.

“The single best thing on the floor is her arm. She brings a lot of offense,” Fisher said. “It’s not often you can lose a player like [former Panther Kate Yeazel] and say you are bringing in someone as good or better the following year.”

Kullerkann doesn’t just want strong individual performances — her goal is helping Pitt reach its first NCAA Tournament.

The Panthers look like a definite contender after analysts said the team narrowly missed the tournament last year.

Above all, though, Fisher said Kullerkann’s leadership stands out.

“She just brings a lot of maturity,” Fisher said. “For the five freshmen we have, it’s pretty easy to say, ‘Hey, look no further than across the locker-room [at Kadi] if you’re confused what [leadership] should look like.”

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For the kill: Kullerkann ends journey from native Estonia with Pitt volleyball