By Abby Norman
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Creating a team bond is an essential part of any team at any level. For WVU freshman Anna Panagiotakopoulos, creating that family bond was an easy transition.
Of the seven freshmen on the WVU volleyball team, Panagiotakopoulos traveled the farthest to be a Mountaineer. Anna trekked over 2,000 miles from her hometown in Phoenix, Ariz., to live out her volleyball dreams and create something the WVU volleyball program has never seen-a winning tradition.
Growing up the youngest of her siblings and with three older brothers, Panagiotakopoulos was surrounded by athletics her whole life. Her father Christo was a soccer player at Nathanial College and her oldest brother, Thanasi, played basketball at Northern Colorado and professionally in Greece for two years.
Although volleyball has recently become the main sporting event for the Panagiotakopoulos family, that was not always the case. As Anna grew up, the family events surrounded basketball. Big family gatherings were all about playing or watching basketball games. It wasn't until her brothers started to pick up volleyball that Panagiotakopoulos really found the sport.
"All of my brothers played volleyball in high school," Panagiotakopoulos said. "It was really fun watching my oldest brother, Thanasi, because he was really good at volleyball. I loved watching him play and he was one of the reasons that I really got into the sport."
After seeing her brother's success first hand, the 5-foot-5 libero was hooked. She began participating in any league she could find and in sixth grade, she started to take the sport more seriously. Panagiotakopoulos began playing at the club level before moving on to nationally-ranked Xavier College Preparatory.
In the summer after her sophomore year of high school, all of her hard work paid off as she was selected to the USAV High Performance team for the Arizona Region. There, she met with up-and-coming coach Jill Kramer who was about to be named head coach at West Virginia University.
"I got the job here at West Virginia right after I coached her at USA High Performance," Kramer said. "She was a person I knew I immediately wanted to recruit. I really respect her leadership skills and the way she communicates on the court. She is a gym rat, is super personable and the type of kid in a program that can make a huge difference in recruiting. She has a lot of charisma and people automatically gravitate towards her."
Along with Panagiotakopoulos, eight newcomers made their way to Morgantown in the fall of 2012, coming from six different states and one from Poland. Having never met before, the team had to learn quickly to get along and create a bond.
"I know it sounds super cliché, but volleyball brings us all together," said freshman setter Brittany Sample. "We are all here for the same reasons and we all have the same goals. We are all from different cultures and backgrounds, but we all have this same mentality towards the same thing. That's what brings us together even though we are from different areas."
Sample and Anna both play a vital role on the court for the Mountaineers. Sample has the task of guiding the offense as the setter and Panagiotakopoulos roams the backcourt as libero. The two have been roommates since arriving on campus on July 1, although Sample graduated high school early and has been at WVU since January. As roommates, they have helped each other adjust to life in Morgantown.
"Both of us are so busy with volleyball that we really aren't realizing the homesickness," Sample said. "If we need to talk to someone, we are both there for each other and we know that and it's cool."
The whole Panagiotakopoulos family has helped with the adjustment as well. Christo and Connie Panagiotakopoulos, Anna's parents, decided to rent a house 20 minutes outside of Morgantown for the duration of the volleyball season so they would not miss a game. The house also serves as a gathering point for the family when they come to visit.
"Having my family coming in and out of town is really nice," Panagiotakopoulos explained. "My parents and my brothers have been the most supportive people throughout every volleyball event in my career. My parents have never missed a game in my life and my brothers hadn't either until now. They are back at home watching the live video feed or stats for every game. They will be out here within the next month or two, so that will be fun for them to come out and watch."
With a family atmosphere surrounding them, Panagiotakopoulos and the WVU volleyball team have found a home in Morgantown that will not only allow them to thrive, but start the foundation of a program on the rise.
"I think it's important that they feel like they have a home away from home," Kramer said. "It is important that they can feel like Morgantown is a community that can support them, they can thrive in and they are comfortable with the people who surround them, both on their team and staff. In the grand scheme of things, the team is more than just our team."