From Serbia to Riverdale

Milena Janjusevic and Ivana Kostic have known each other for nearly a decade.

They often competed against each other in Belgrade, Serbia, and were even part of the same volleyball youth national teams.

But that was as far as their relationship went. They were mere acquaintances, who happened to be from the same city.

Now, thousands of miles away from home, Janjusevic and Kostic have formed an inseparable bond that has led them to the same school. They went their separate ways when they came to the United States just two years ago, but contacted one another during the 2014 season and decided they were going to team-up at Manhattan College.

“I knew she was graduating from junior college and I was looking to transfer,” Kostic said about how Janjusevic’s decision influenced hers. “I heard she wanted to go with someone who was also Serbian, so I was kind of looking for the same thing. I contacted her. We started speaking and then we were just looking to see if we can go somewhere together.”

Janjusevic was the first to receive interest from Manhattan’s head coach, Mark Jones. She was graduating from junior college in Odessa, Tex., after a season that culminated in her being named the Most Valuable Player of the Western Junior College Athletic Conference West division.

During the recruiting process, she heard that Jones was looking for a middle blocker, a position she knew Kostic played. She always wanted to go to school with a fellow Serbian, therefore decided to reach out to Kostic and convince her to send Jones a video of her highlights, in the hopes that it would catch Jones’ attention.

That, it did.

Jones heard from another coach that Kostic was thinking about transferring. He also knew her coach at UMBC. What he didn’t know was that Kostic and Janjusevic had a long history that went back to Serbia. That was the final factor in convincing him that Kostic was just who he was looking for.

“I think the biggest thing for them was, I would say the experience,” Jones said about Janjusevic and Kostic. “The experience at a high level and that’s something that they’re used to back home. They played together, so that was definitely a plus. I saw the consistency and the mentality that they bring every day to practice and also in the games. I think they’re just very stable, and that’s what I really like about them.”

But before Janjusevic and Kostic were playing Division One volleyball together in the United States, they were playing club volleyball in Serbia.

They both began playing at a young age—Janjusevic in the second grade and Kostic in the fourth. They loved the sport, but in Serbia, school and volleyball did not mesh. It was either one or the other.

The club level served as a “minor league” to professional volleyball, and required too many hours of practice that took away time from Janjusevic’s and Kostic’s school work.

The two sat down with their parents and decided that it was only in the United States where they could get the best of both worlds.

“I decided to come here because in my country, when it comes to college and sports you need to choose between those two and which want you want to continue with,” Janjusevic said. “I found an opportunity here to have both and that was the main reason why I came here.”

At first, it was difficult for Janjusevic and Kostic to be acclimated to a new culture, new coaches and an entire change of scenery. The two struggled with the language for about a semester, but with some practice, started feeling more comfortable.

“I was really sad because I didn’t know what to expect here,” Janjusevic said about coming to the United States. “It was kind of interesting. When I first came here, I had great coaches back there. They helped me a lot in the beginning since they knew that I was coming from a different part of the world. It was hard, but after a while you get used to everything.”

Looking to get closer to her cousins, who live in the east coast, Janjusevic decided she wanted to go to school in New York after she graduated from Odessa College. She had several schools in mind, but Manhattan’s recent success and close proximity to the city attracted her.

Her decision to go to Manhattan had a domino effect that proved beneficial for Jones and the volleyball team.

Kostic, who was frustrated with life at UMBC, was set to transfer. She just didn’t know where.

“Volleyball just wasn’t good there and volleyball is a big part of my life, so it was affecting everything else,” Kostic said about how she felt at UMBC. “I wasn’t really in a good mood or anything. I just felt like I should change that for myself. I couldn’t be there for four years.”

That’s when she was contacted by Janjusevic, who told her she wanted to go to school with another Serbian. It was a dream scenario for Kostic, who also loved Manhattan’s pitch.

“It’s a more positive environment here,” Kostic said about Manhattan. “It’s nicer here to play and I feel more comfortable playing here than over there. It’s not that much pressure and I don’t know, I enjoy more playing here than over there.”

Now in a place where she feels at ease, and with a friend in Janjusevic that serves as a constant reminder of home, Kostic’s rise in play has been noticeable. In 2014, Kostic averaged 1.14 kills per set and .71 blocks per set. Halfway through the 2015 season, Kostic has improved those numbers to 1.45 and .94 respectively.

But Janjusevic has also seen a leap in her play. Her MVP campaign in 2014 saw her post 2.29 kills per set and 2.08 digs per set. This season, Janjusevic has excelled to figures of 2.70 kills and 2.89 digs per set.

To Jones, Janjusevic’s and Kostic’s contributions come to no surprise. He expected them to play a huge role on the team, especially with the departures of Malia McGuinness and Anna Kitlar, who were integral parts of the team for the last three seasons.

“That was the important thing for us, is that we knew that we had certain things that we needed for the program, especially after the departure of our three seniors,” Jones said. “We wanted a little more maturity on the court and that was something we were looking for, especially in those two players, because we knew we were bringing in five freshmen. We really felt like with their leadership and their experience, it was going to help us.”

The two have helped Manhattan earn a 10-7 record, good for second place in the MAAC Conference. They will be vital members in Manhattan’s push to a MAAC championship, something that would have seemed unfathomable to them last year.

They knew one another in Serbia. They were aware of how good the other was. But, they never expected to be together.

At Manhattan, that has changed. They’ve become close friends, whose comradery has led them to new levels of play.

“They’re getting better and better,” Jones said about Janjusevic and Kostic. “The transition period is never easy, especially with a new school, new environment, new coaches, so I think we’re happy in the sense of really where their progress is, and they keep on getting better and better, and that’s the most important thing.”