Written by Ben Strack Thursday, 07 November 2013 00:00
Winning isn’t everything. But it certainly seems to have manifested itself into the culture of Plainview volleyball over the past 20 seasons. That’s how long Coach Russi Villalta has reigned over the courts at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School.
With seven county championships and fifteen appearances in the finals, Villalta has tirelessly molded talent into titles. She is the winningest high school volleyball coach in New York with 382 wins entering the 2013 season.
But seldom in her two decades with the Hawks has she had the tool she possesses this season: A 6-foot-4 junior with the ability to play any position on the floor.
Allen Durutovic is only the fourth player of that height Villalta has coached, and only the second who went through the entire rotation, passing in the back row. Although she didn’t know such a growth spurt would ensue, she saw potential upon first seeing him play in seventh grade.
“I knew he was going to be one of the dominant players when he got older,” said Villalta. “I didn’t know he was going to be [6-foot-4].”
She worked with Durutovic the next year at Mattlin Middle School as coach of the eighth grade team, a position Villalta has held since 2000. The job allows her to develop students while they are young so they can be ready to play for her on the varsity level.
“Having Villalta as a coach has been really good for me because she’s taught me how to really work hard and try to be the best that I can be to become one of the top players in the county,” said Durutovic. “She’s been trying to tell me that since day one and it’s been paying off.”
After a year of junior varsity, Durutovic started on varsity as a sophomore, but was substituted in the back row for defensive reasons. After working on that facet of his game over the past year, Villalta said passing is now one of his strengths.
Another attribute is his calm leadership, according to his coach. Although more of a quiet leader, Villalta said he has a fun personality with the ability to keep his teammates loose in practice.
In addition to hitting middle at the net, Durutovic plays middle in the back row. The veteran coach says being in the center of the floor allows his length to shorten his teammates’ defensive spots. She’s still getting used to the luxury.
“He covers so much ground,” said Villalta. “I have to learn how to make an adjustment for a big guy to play like that.”
The consistent success the Hawks’ program has enjoyed may seem surprising when considering the absence of height during Villalta’s tenure. Not to her.
“I’m a woman and I believe in more defense,” she said. “Most men want to just teach kids to rack balls. If you can’t pass, you can’t play.”
Consistent with his coach’s mindset, Durutovic’s improving defense keeps him on the court longer, which allows him to contribute more to the team’s success.
In a three-game win over Syosset, the junior had 11 kills, five blocks and four aces. Villalta points to this Sept. 26 matchup as Durutovic breaking out of his shell and said he was finally killing the ball like a Plainview volleyball player should.
“I felt different; I felt like I was hitting the ball harder,” said Durutovic. “It was improving.”
Four days later, the Plainview giant struck again, recording 16 kills and four blocks in a five-game thriller over Port Washington.
Plainview ended the regular season with a record of 13-2, finishing second to Massapequa. The No. 2 Hawks defeated No. 7 Mepham in the quarterfinals last Thursday, moving on to face Port Washington. Durutovic led the way once again, tallying 10 kills and seven blocks.
With the history of this program, her players know what is expected of them.
“You know you’re going to get to the finals every year if you just keep working hard,” said Durutovic. “I think we could take it all the way to the county finals and win it and hopefully keep going on from there.”