Zemljak well versed in volleyball


POSTED: Thursday, March 05, 2009

Slovenian at home. German starting at age 6. English in the fourth grade. Enough Serbian and Russian to get by. And now French in college.




No. 14 UC Santa Barbara (4-11, 2-10 MPSF) at No. 12 Hawaii (3-10, 2-8)

        When: 7 p.m. today and Saturday.

TV: KFVE, Ch. 5




Nejc Zemljak could be the poster boy for Berlitz. But growing up in Maribor, Slovenia—where getting to Austria is like a drive from Hawaii Kai to Haleiwa—being multi-lingual was as important as having a passport.

The language that has taken Zemljak the furthest, however, is volleyball. He is bilingual in that as well, with great success on the beach and now indoors for Hawaii.

The sophomore setter is expected to make his third start tonight when the 12th-ranked Warriors host No. 14 UC Santa Barbara in the first of two consecutive Mountain Pacific Sports Federation matches that are crucial to both teams.

Injuries and circumstance have Zemljak replacing senior Sean Carney, who has moved to outside hitter.

“;I'm happy that they think I'm doing a good job and I'm comfortable out there,”; Zemljak said. “;Sure, I want to play, but if someone else is doing a better job or there's a different combination that would perform better for us ... It doesn't matter if I'm playing.

“;What matters is that we get the win.”;

It didn't happen last week, when the Warriors dropped two to Stanford. But, as the Hawaii players said, the first team had about 10 practices to start making connections with Zemljak.

“;I think he's stepped in and is playing well,”; said Carney, who set for most of last season and the first 11 matches of this year. “;It's a tough spot for him, a backup setter coming in in the middle of the season. It's tough for everyone who's making changes. I've got to remember what I used to tell the hitters because now I have to go do it.

“;Our (setting) styles are different and he's quieter, where I'm more vocal. But sometimes that's not what you need.”;

; Zemljak is not overwhelmed by his new role. He has been a setter for most of his volleyball career, with stints at libero and hitter during youth club play.

His all-around abilities are well suited for the beach game, in which he teamed with Tine Umaut to win the FIVB U-19 World Beach Championships in 2005.

Although he is a travel industry management major, Zemljak is very interested in psychology. He's well aware of the practical applications in sport.

“;Joining the team here was psychological,”; he said. “;You never know how you're going to fit in. Dusan (Matic, a freshman middle from Serbia) had potential last season, but he didn't fit in and left.

“;And there's a little bit of psychology going on with your hitters. Each of them have their own preference, you have to figure out how they like their sets ... which is my job. But you also have to know how they're doing mentally during the game.”;

Hawaii associate coach Tino Reyes, a former setter at Cal Poly, likes Zemljak's game.

“;He's got a lot of skills,”; Reyes said. “;He doesn't do any one thing spectacularly, but he does them all well.

“;He's a good volleyball player. It's always on the setter whether you win or lose. He's the one that has to make the decisions for the team, and make the right decisions.”;

Earlier this week, Zemljak and Reyes broke down the tape of the Stanford matches, analyzing what Zemljak did and didn't do.

“;I hate to admit it, but blocking is my weakness,”; the setter said.

Just as Zemljak tries to improve his game, he's hoping to improve Hawaii's record. He also has another goal: increase attendance at the Stan Sheriff Center.

“;Once we have the results, once the team gets back on the winning track and gets into championship contention, people will prefer to be here than watching on TV,”; he said. “;Even though we don't have the amount of fans they used to, we have more than other places. In other places, (2,615, Saturday's attendance against Stanford) would be ridiculously a lot of people.

“;My plan is to get this gym full again.”;