Early in Rachele Rastelli’s career with St. John’s, the team traveled to Philadelphia to face Big East foe Villanova. Coach Joanne Persico decided it would be fun to take Rastelli and her other Italian player, Erica Di Maulo, to see one of the city’s most famous tourist attractions.
No, not the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall. What else would an Italian appreciate more than the statue of Rocky Balboa, “The Italian Stallion?”
The statue of the fictional boxing hero, of course, stands at the bottom of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The steps were made famous in the 1976 movie when Sylvester Stallone’s character raced to the top to conclude a training run.
It actually was an appropriate destination.
Persico, the only coach in the 29-year history of St. John’s volleyball, had taken to calling Rastelli “Rocky.” Her first name, pronounced Rah-KEH-leh (don’t forget to roll the R), sounds a bit like Rocky. She’s a left-hander. And she hits hard.
“Boy, she’s just like Rocky,” Persico said. “She just keeps pounding.”
Rastelli, a 6-foot-4 right side, was the Big East Co-Player of the Year in 2021, averaging 4.44 kills per set while hitting .264 clip. She also averaged 1.83 digs and 0.82 blocks per set.
This season, the graduate student from Parma again leads St. John’s in kills with 224 after 15 matches (3.61/set).
They’re part of a line of international players who have helped the Red Storm to two Big East Tournament titles, four regular-season titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances, including a round of 16 (2007), all since 2006.
Persico said she believes she was one of the first volleyball coaches in the Mid-Atlantic to recruit international players.
“Now it’s flourished,” she said. “There’s a ton of international players in every sport.”
Eight of Persico’s players this season are from overseas. Five hail from Italy, though one of those, sophomore outside Giorgia Walther, is German. She, by the way, is two kills behind Rastelli this season.
Among the other 10 Big East schools, there is only one other Italian, and only a few Big East schools have more than one international player on the roster.
“The recruiting really evolved into that because, at one point, I wasn’t able to get the top California girl,” Persico said. “They would say I’m going to UCLA, I’m going to Pepperdine, I’m going to Stanford, I’m going to Texas … So I began to go on the international market.”
A volleyball melting pot
The story of Rastelli’s rise — and the rise of other international players at St. John’s — began with a newspaper ad 30 years ago.
Persico had been a standout setter at Syracuse, the Big East Player of the Year in 1986. But she got an advertising job after college and never gave much thought to coaching.
Then she saw an ad: St. John’s was starting a women’s volleyball program from scratch and needed a coach. Persico’s passion for the sport still burned, and what better place to fan the flames than at a school in her native Queens?
It was not going to be easy. There were no full scholarships to dangle in front of potential recruits and no dorms to offer. But she forged ahead, recruiting the fertile volleyball grounds of California because club volleyball was almost non-existent in the Mid-Atlantic in the early 1990s.
The California pipeline worked for a while, and Persico also plugged in a few players from Pennsylvania and the Midwest. But as the sport grew, luring players from other regions, particularly the West, became more and more difficult.
One of Persico’s neighbors at the time was venerable St. John’s men’s soccer coach Dave Masur. Masur’s team won the NCAA championship in 1996, and Persico noticed he had done it with a roster that included a number of international players.
That’s when she had the epiphany to try to tap into the foreign market. Even if her program didn’t have the pedigree of a Stanford or a Penn State, she had a selling point they didn’t: New York City.
“I think New York City is a melting pot. I know my university is a melting pot,” Persico said. “And, honestly, I began to realize that the mix was a perfect fit and a perfect representation of what we were.”
Rastelli said the lure of New York City helped her decision to play for the Red Storm.
“I wasn’t aware of the conference, but I knew New York City,” said Rastelli, who has her undergrad degree in public relations and is working toward a master’s in international communications. “So communications, advertising, this is the city. You cannot find a better place in the United States than New York.”
So for the better part of the past two decades, Persico has leaned heavily on foreign talent, reeling in players from as far away as China and Vietnam.
Now recruiting from overseas is much easier. No more poring over grainy VHS tapes. No more wandering around Poland at night trying to find a hotel while not knowing the language (true story from Persico’s career). Many European nations have companies that help place athletes in U.S. colleges. They find athletes, Persico said, who can “make it”: who have the grades, who can speak some English, have the test scores and the resources to make coming to America a reality.
Persico’s biggest overseas success stories have come from the Mediterranean. (Perhaps her own Italian heritage helps.) Her first impactful player from Italy was Di Maulo, whose final season was 2019, Rastelli’s sophomore year. Di Maulo was a four-time All-Big East honoree and is the program’s all-time leader in assists.
Greek international Efrosini Alexakou was the Big East Freshman of the Year in 2018 and won Big East Player of the Year after the 2021 spring season.
Now, it’s Rastelli’s turn, as she will be looking to add a second Big East Player of the Year award.
“I get in the gym and think, yeah, I won the co-Big East Player of the Year. That was last year,” she said. “This year, I am technically nobody once again.”
Volleyball is extremely popular in Italy, where, in the latest FIVB rankings, the Italian women are third, and the men are sixth.
But volleyball was not Rastelli’s first activity as a youngster. Before taking up volleyball, she spent two years as a dancer – two years she said she has tried to erase from her memory.
“I was super bad at it,” she said. “It was not my thing.”
There was a gym near where she lived, so sports seemed like the next logical step. Her mother, Cristiana, earned a spot on Italy’s women’s basketball team, but a devastating knee injury ended her career.
Always a taller child, Rastelli seemed to be a natural for basketball, but, she said, her mother wanted to minimize her risk of injury. Volleyball seemed like a better avenue.
“I just started volleyball, and I never stopped,” she said. “At the beginning, I wasn’t good at all. I was uncoordinated. I was the one never playing. I had a lot of issues with a lot of coaches, actually.
“But there is a saying that you sink – it’s an Italian saying, but translated it probably doesn’t make that much sense – but you go down or you get out of the storm.”
Even as she progressed, she never entertained the idea of coming to the USA to play in college. But she always had a dream to travel, and as one who studied languages in high school – besides her native tongue, she is fluent in English and Spanish and knows some French – she had a desire to be able to use those languages in other countries.
Her older sister, Rebecca – “She’s the smart kid of the family, and I am the athlete,” Rastelli said – came to America as part of a study-abroad program, and she returned home raving about the experience.
And the final tipping point: While she was playing with her club team, Rastelli encountered Jesica Umansky, who founded Sportlinx360, one of the aforementioned services that helps place European athletes in American colleges. Umansky pushed the idea of playing collegiately in America.
It was late in the enrollment process, April 2018, to be precise, but Rastelli checked all the necessary boxes – taking the SAT, ACT, etc. – and began her search for a school.
“I wasn’t planning it,” she said. “But I love the code that you only live once, that kind of thing. You’ve got to catch whatever comes your way. So I saw the opportunity, I took it, and, honestly, I think it’s the best decision I ever made.”
Persico had seen her play in Italy on one of her annual recruiting trips. Rastelli had the height and athletic ability, and she could hit with power. She simply lacked consistency.
“She would hit a really good ball then hit a ball out of bounds,” Persico said. “But her work ethic and her drive and her love for volleyball and her unbelievable gritty, gutsy will to win … I’ve got to tell you, I think she’s one of the best players in the country right now.”
Learning the ropes
The ride hasn’t always been smooth. Rastelli said she and Persico had their disagreements early on. Persico preached patience, and as Rastelli continued through her freshman year, she began to understand how everything was going to play out.
“It’s always the year where you have to understand how things work and understand you don’t always get what you want,” Rastelli said. “She used to tell me, ‘One day, everything is going to make sense. You’re going to be where you want to be. You’re going to be the great player you’re working so hard for.’
“When that becomes reality, you connect all the dots and think how far you’ve gone along the way. You maybe don’t trust in the moment. My freshman year self probably would have not believed where I am right now and who I am.”
By her sophomore year, she was an all-Big East performer and a key cog in the Red Storm’s march to the conference tournament title in 2019. In the tournament, St. John’s swept No. 10 Creighton and beat No. 12 Marquette in four sets. Rastelli had 13 kills (hitting nearly .300) against Creighton and 15 kills (.314) and four blocks against Marquette.
Another all-conference honor followed her junior year, then came last season’s co-player of the year honor along with a VolleyballMag.com All-American honorable mention.
As much as anything technical – Persico said Rastelli has become more adept at hitting sharp angles – Rastelli blossomed because of an adjustment in her mind set.
She said the collegiate game is so stat-driven that she sometimes would get caught up in her numbers. That led her to put undue pressure on herself.
“I kind of had to deal with that at the beginning, which was kind of messing with my confidence on the court,” she said. “I lacked that self-confidence. And I was really comparing myself to others. I learned that what I needed to do during practice was not challenge myself and compare myself to others but challenge myself to be better than what I was the day before.
“I was not focusing on the game. Overthinking. The key is not thinking. That’s the thing that got me where I am. Once you feel good about yourself and the things that you do work, your confidence goes over the roof.”
She also has become a “big sister” to her younger Italian teammates. Di Maulo played that role for Rastelli. Now it’s Rastelli’s turn to help freshmen Lucrezia Lodi and Ludovica Zola – and before them Eleonora Tosi and Walther – adjust to the new surroundings and the finer points of the American college game.
“It’s a cool transition to see where (I) started and think, ‘I’m the big sister now,’ ” she said.
Rastelli’s “big sister,” Di Maulo, went out a Big East champion. Rastelli is hoping to do the same. St. John’s was picked to finish fifth in the conference, but Rastelli believes the Red Storm are capable of challenging for the title.
They’re 11-4 overall 2-0 in the Big East after sweeping Providence and then beating Connecticut in five. The Red Storm play at Villanova on Friday — another tip to Philadelphia — and then goes to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
Last year, St. John’s missed out on the NCAA Tournament. Rasteli, accordingly, is readying for a Rocky finish. So far there’s been nothing to prove Rastelli wrong when she said early in the season, “Big East teams should really watch out for us.”