A long, winding journey led Jelena Novakovic to Virginia

Novakovic is making an impact for the Cavaliers far away from home

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 Senior right-side hitter Jelena Novakovic is currently second in the ACC with 41 aces.

Khuyen Dinh | Cavalier Daily

After every point, the Virginia volleyball team huddles up and often leading the huddle for the Cavaliers is senior right-side hitter Jelena Novakovic. Novakovic’s unorthodox path to Charlottesville was filled with plenty of twists and turns, but now that she’s here, her role on the team is pivotal. 

Novakovic was raised in Belgrade, Serbia — over 4,500 miles away from Virginia. Growing up, Novakovic played a variety of different sports — from tennis to swimming to ballet — before finally settling on volleyball.

“My dad always let us do our own thing,” Novakovic said. “My older brother played basketball, my younger brother did soccer and I chose volleyball. I grew up around a lot of sports, but I liked volleyball the best.”

She committed to sport in the fifth grade and has stuck with it ever since. From the start, the sport was more than a hobby for her. She competed on Serbian youth national teams as a teenager and even won medals in European competitions.

However, in addition to playing volleyball at a high level, Novakovic wanted more — a college education. This led her to start looking at colleges in the United States. Eventually, Penn State offered her a scholarship, which she accepted. 

Novakovic had never visited the United States before the commitment, so the change of scenery was naturally a bit difficult for her at first.

“I just went straight from high school in Serbia to Penn State,” Novakovic said. “It was kind of a crazy journey since I really didn’t get a chance to visit, and I didn’t really know much about it. It was a really big transition process. It took me a whole year to adjust, and I had some tough injuries too that set me back.”

Novakovic’s stint in State College, Pa., was short as she decided to transfer after her second year at Penn State. Due to the injuries she suffered in her freshman season, she was able to redshirt with three years of eligibility remaining. Novakovic explored several options in the country before settling on U.Va. in April 2017 due to a combination of academics and athletics.

“After my second year [at Penn State] I thought that [Penn State] is not really a place where I want to spend the last two years, so I was looking for a better academic university, which the University of Virginia offered, and also a big athletic school where I could get better as a volleyball player,” Novakovic said.

Despite all the setbacks she suffered, Novakovic made an impact on Virginia volleyball immediately. She finished first and second on the team in kills in 2017 and 2018, respectively. She has also started 24 of 25 games for the Cavaliers this season and leads the team with 232 kills.

During her time at Virginia, Novakovic has emerged as one of the top servers in the nation. She led the team in service aces in her junior season and is on pace to do so again this season. She currently leads the ACC with 41 aces and is tied for 35th in that category in the entire NCAA.

Although there are several factors in play, Novakovic’s use of topspin serves is a major driver of her success. The topspin serve can be risky, but it is also more likely to result in aces and create trouble for the opposition.

“The top spin serve is more of a high-risk, high-reward serve so that’s been something I’ve been working on in the offseason,” Novakovic said. “Typically, since it’s a more aggressive serve, sometimes I’ll make more errors because I will get the team out of system and put them in tough situations or I’ll get more aces.”

It takes more than raw talent to find success with the topspin serve. Coaches, teammates and practice all help Novakovic pull it off. 

“I’ve been lucky enough that coaches trust me, and I put a lot of work in so that I can be more consistent,” she said. “They’ve been very supportive with me having that green light to be aggressive and having my other teammates help me out as well. That’s why I’ve been able to find success [on my service game].”

Even though the topspin serve is difficult to master, Coach Aaron Smith began experimenting with the new serve in Novakovic’s first year on Grounds. According to the coaching staff, she was able to pick it up quickly, and it’s led to success for the entire team.

Since the majority of Virginia’s serving attack is made up of float serves, Novakovic and her topspin serve offers a change of pace and forces the Cavaliers’ opponents to take extra precaution.

“As her stats indicate, the work that Jelena has put into her serve is paying off,” Smith said. “Very few players can bring the power, change of speed and accuracy that Jelena brings behind the service line … It is an element that opponents must prepare for … While volleyball is truly a team sport, in some ways, you could say that her serve has won us some sets.”

As one of four seniors on the roster, Novakovic has an important role as one of the team leaders. Moreover, since she is a fifth-year senior, she affectionately known as “grandma” by many of her younger teammates.

“With a lot of underclassmen playing, they look up to us to use our experience and knowledge and to help them out in tough situations,” Novakovic said. “It’s definitely been really fun playing with this team and having the opportunity to use that experience and knowledge so that we can all help each other out.”

Novakovic’s leadership isn’t just appreciated by her teammates at Virginia but also by her coaches. Given the team’s youth and the challenges the Cavaliers have faced this season, her coaches said having a strong presence like Novakovic is essential in keeping Virginia on track.  

“Jelena has a passion for volleyball and a genuine love for her teammates and coaches,” Smith said. “That sort of care and dedication serves as motivation to her teammates. Her maturity and ‘no excuse’ attitude provides comfort in knowing she will be there when her number is called, which is quite often. Even through failure, she remains confident in her ability. I have seen that sort of leadership rub off on our younger players in particular.”

After graduating, Novakovic hopes to pursue a professional volleyball career — most likely in Europe. As a student in the Curry School of Education, she also hopes to eventually hold a career in the field of education.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to make a difference and maybe work in a nonprofit that makes sure everyone gets equal education, especially back home [in Serbia], it’s a little different with the socioeconomic challenges,” Novakovic said. “Wherever I end up, I feel like I would want to make a difference.”

The Cavaliers are currently 11-16 on the season after picking up a win over Wake Forest Sunday. Virginia has four more games on the schedule, but Novakovic is especially looking forward to Senior Day Nov. 22 since her parents will be making the long trip to Charlottesville from Serbia for her final home match as a Cavalier.

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