The King’s Academy volleyball team was lacking two things ahead of the season.
The first was numbers. While talented, the Lady Lions’ roster consisted of six players.
The second thing they were missing was an outside hitter.
“We were kind of unsure how it was going to go,” TKA setter Kolbie Greene said. “You know — six players, not having any subs. Once we got her, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s finally coming together.’”
Greene is talking about Valeriya Varnakova. A Russian native and an outside hitter, Varnakova moved from Moscow to Seymour on Aug. 18. She has played a vital role in TKA winning its first East Region title to advance to the Division II-A state tournament for the second time in program history.
TKA will play Goodpasture at noon Tuesday at Siegel High School in Murfreesboro.
A sophomore, Varnakova was not just an extra body for the team. She possessed the kind of arm TKA coach Kelly Peterson said she has never had at the outside hitter position.
“The way she hits the ball gives that signature of, ‘OK, we’re here to play,’” Peterson said. “She can hit a ball out. She can hit a ball in the net — that’s OK. But then you realize, the next time, it’s going to go down.”
Varnakova had that effect against Concord Christian in the region championship. Her first shot sailed out of bounds, but Peterson said the other team’s apprehension in that moment was palpable.
Varnakova finished with 17 kills and served 21 points.
“Honestly, I thought she ruled the court,” Peterson said. “They really could not touch her.”
Varnakova’s volleyball roots run deep. She began playing eight years ago. Her parents also play for local teams in Russia, where she said volleyball is a bigger sport.
A major difference between Russia and the United States, Varnakova said, is students in the U.S. go to high schools for an education, with sports being more of an afterthought. In Russia, it’s the opposite, but there aren’t the same opportunities at the college level.
“In America, it’s possible to combine the education and sport,” Varnakova said. “In Russia, we don’t have good university sports. I’m here to get into a good university and to get into a good level of volleyball.”
From Moscow to London to Chicago to Knoxville, Varnakova flew to Tennessee. She had traveled to the United State before, visiting Disneyland and Universal Studios on family vacations.
It was before those trips that she decided this was her path.
“I knew it at the beginning of my life,” Varnakova said. “This is my favorite country.”
Peterson had heard about Varnakova prior to her arrival, but she said she was reluctant to get her hopes up. After all, she had no room for injuries — a concerning dynamic given the Lady Lions’ history.
Coming off their first state appearance in 2017, they lost their only setter, Greene, to a sprained ankle before the 2018 playoffs. It squashed their chances of advancing to that stage for a second straight year.
Peterson didn’t officially know she had a seventh player until the day Varnakova arrived on campus. She said she immediately thought Varnakova and Greene would make a great match.
“And they have,” Peterson said. “Val honestly has raised the level of our team. We have gone from, ‘I think we’re really good and everybody is skilled,’ to, ‘Now we have somebody who can put the ball down.’
“When you have that instead of having long rallies, it just takes you to the next level.”
TKA’s Bianca Hood said Varnakova’s transition onto the squad was much quicker than she expected. Hood’s mom is from Russia, giving Varnakova a go-to person for support while acclimating to the culture.
Hood said every time Greene sets her, Varnakova thanks Greene before celebrating.
“She adapted to the team so well — she just fit right in,” Hood said. “I know it was scary because of the language barrier, but she did so good adapting and figuring out how communicate with us.”
What Varnakova said she loves most about the United States is the friendly mannerisms between strangers. She enjoys saying hello to those passing her on streets.
“In Russia, we just…” Varnakova let her face fall slack and eyes turn sullen as she imitated walking and ignoring passers. “Here, it’s so friendly.”
She also doesn’t mind the balmy weather. In September, when many in Tennessee were complaining about the heat, Varnakova said she was basking in it.
“My Russian friends call me and are like, ‘What’s the weather like in America?’” Varnakova said, to which she responded 30 degrees Celcius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). “They were like, ‘OK, I will not call you anymore.’”
Moving an ocean’s width apart from family and friends isn’t the easiest of changes for a teenager. An only child, Varnakova said her parents have always supported her decision.
“Of course it’s difficult,” Varnakova said. “But I’m strong.”
It also helps that technology makes distance seem less far.
Varnakova’s mom and dad watch every TKA match on a Facebook live stream. There’s a time difference, though. They have to get up at 3 a.m. to do so, and her father calls her after every one.
“He’s like, ‘This is your mistake, this is what you did good,” Varnakova said, smiling. “But I love him, and it has really helped me. I’m always trying to do better my next game.”