Oct. 26, 2012
By James Greene
Patriot League Associate Director for Communications
Senior Ariana Mankus is being herself, and in doing so, she’s leaving a lasting legacy on the Army volleyball program.
When Mankus takes the floor Saturday in the Black Knights’ match at Holy Cross, she will do so as the newest member of the Patriot League’s all-time top-10 kills list. Itself a staggering achievement, it’s not Mankus’ first time appearing on one of the League’s career rankings. Earlier this season, she inched into the League’s all-time top 10 in digs.
“I knew that I was pretty close to getting into Army’s top 10 (in kills),” Mankus admitted, “but as far as the Patriot League goes, I had no idea.”
And it wasn’t until Mankus received an email from her mother after Wednesday’s victory over Manhattan, in what could have been the final home match of her collegiate career, that she started to understand what all of the congratulatory comments were for from her coaches and her sports information director.
“I didn’t know what they were talking about,” Mankus reiterated. “I didn’t quite understand the circumstance.”
And it’s with that understatement, complete with the “Aw, shucks” modesty, that makes Mankus’ career achievements that much more impressive.
Entering Saturday’s contest with the Crusaders, the Lisle, Ill., native has 1,459 kills and 1,368 digs for her career, placing her eighth and 10th, respectively, on the League’s all-time chart in each category. She’s currently just one of two student-athletes to occupy a position on each list, joining former Army standout Deann Machlan, who played from 1992-95.
Not bad company.
Had it not been for her father, it might not have happened. Mankus remembers it like this.
“When I was about 11 or 12 years old, my dad said to me, ‘Hey, you should look into a service academy. I think you should really consider this.’ I kind of ignored it.
“I’ve come to realize in recent years my dad is really good at that stuff,” she added with a chuckle.
Despite her early hesitance, the seed had been planted. There were brochures, the first of which, ironically, came from the U.S. Naval Academy, her future collegiate on-court rival.
And then there was the call.
“I’ll never forget that night,” Mankus began. “I came home from volleyball practice and my dad told me about a call I’d gotten from Danielle Cooper. She had just graduated from West Point (in 2007). He told me, ‘She’s recruiting you for volleyball. You should give her a call back.’”
Mankus returned the phone call, and her future as a cadet-athlete at the U.S. Military Academy was all but sealed.
“I had that first conversation and I thought immediately I had to contact the coaches,” she said.
From there, Mankus was on her way.
Success poured in during her rookie season with the Black Knights. She became the first in League history named Player and Rookie of the Year by the head coaches in the same season, and top-seeded Army captured the Patriot League championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. She garnered national honors as well, being named the College Volleyball Update National Freshman of the Year.
She added second-team All-League honors her sophomore season, and was named to the first team a year ago before leading the Black Knights back to the Patriot League finals, where they fell to perennial conference power American.
Despite the individual accomplishments, coming up short of another League crown the last two years drives her to get one last crack at the trophy before she calls it a career.
“The ultimate goal is to win the Patriot League,” she said. “To get there, you have to set smaller goals. There’s that saying that if you keep your eye on the mountain in the distance, you can stumble on the rocks at your feet.”
A preseason All-League selection by the head coaches, Mankus seems well on her way to a fourth appearance on the postseason squad. She enters the weekend leading the League in kills (3.4 per set), eighth in digs (3.75) and 10th in hitting (.229).
Mankus came to West Point as a heralded high school player. Working under head coach Alma Kovaci has made her even better.
“She’s an extremely competent coach. She knows volleyball so well,” Mankus said. “Volleyball has shaped who she is and what she’s become ever since she came to this country from Albania. The amount of hard work and passion that she shows, you just know she has such a love for it.
“And it shows every single day. She’s a great role model. I’ve learned so much from her over the last few years.”
While Mankus would undoubtedly appreciate more individual honors, she demonstrates a perspective and wisdom that goes beyond perhaps the normal college senior.
“It’s not so much about the destination; it’s about the journey,” she explained. “I work my butt off for the other women on my team. We work for each other, because wearing the same jersey and being on the same team mean something. Having them on my team is a huge prize.”
As one of the team’s co-captains, Mankus prefers to lead by example.
“I’ve always been big on leading with actions,” she said. “If that means pumping up teammates by yelling or getting energetic, that’s what I’ll do. But a leader isn’t a leader without the great young men and women around them.”
Mankus’ leadership extends beyond just the volleyball court. She is the chair of Army’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC).
“My respect for student-athletes has exponentially increased (since coming to West Point),” she said. “The amount of effort student-athletes put into their lives is such a huge sacrifice. I have so much respect for that. I truly think the student-athlete is a great part of our society."
One can’t talk about West Point, or any of the nation’s service academies for that matter, without using the word “leadership.” Mankus suggests the best way to lead is to be authentic.
“What I’ve taken away is, just do your best at everything. It sounds cliché but it’s true,” she said. “In order to leave a legacy, you have to be yourself, and you have to always adjust. Everyone will see that, and everybody will respect you for it.”
Second-place Army (7-2 in the Patriot League) visits Holy Cross Saturday in an effort to keep pace with first-place Colgate (9-1), a four-set winner Thursday night over Bucknell. The Black Knights have plenty of company near the top of the standings, with defending champion American (6-3), Lehigh (5-4) and Navy (5-4) in the hunt for League tournament bids.