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SJU’s Persico-Smith on unlikely career path

As a senior on the Syracuse University volleyball team, Joanne Persico-Smith thought the last thing she would be doing for a living was coaching college volleyball.

“I was the one in the van saying I would never coach, this guy has no life, you gotta be kidding me, why is he making us run up these hills,” the Bellerose native said. “I can’t believe I was the one in the van who was [belittling] the coach saying I would never take it as a career path.”

Sure enough, 14 years later Persico-Smith is on the verge of beginning her eighth season as the head coach of the St. John’s volleyball team a year after the Red Storm posted a 25-8 record, its best since the program’s inception in 1994.

“I don’t have any children and I consider all the girls who played for me like my own children,” she said. “I know I have to give them back but I’m very proud that I’ve put together a good program with a good reputation. Preseason is tiring and recruiting is very stressful, very challenging but it’s fun. Every day I laugh about something and I really enjoy the game.”

Persico-Smith, who now lives in Dix Hills with her husband Dr. Gerald Smith — they met while playing beach volleyball — has built the St. John’s volleyball program from its humble beginnings in 1994 to its point now, a well-respected, quality Big East team.

“I don’t know how long [legendary St. John’s basketball coach] Lou Carnesecca lasted — I know he lasted a long time — but I hope I can last as long as he did,” she said. “I’ll just take it one day at a time.”

After graduating from Syracuse, where Persico-Smith was named Big East Player of the Year in 1987, she worked in sales at Cablevision on Long Island and Liberty Mutual in Manhattan. It was just after receiving a raise at Liberty Mutual that Persico-Smith learned about the newly formed position at St. John’s.

Despite not having coaching experience, Persico-Smith decided to interview for the job, just to see what it would be like.

“I never coached before, but I played a real long time. And I was a setter playing so it’s more like being a point guard on a basketball court so I was running the court and coaching the floor,” she said. “I didn’t know much about doing the administrative details that the university needed but I’ve always been very comfortable in the game. I consider that a strength.”

And apparently so did St. John’s, but not before Persico-Smith took her name out of the running after receiving another raise. But then she had a change of heart.

“I went back to work at Liberty Mutual and I would drive to work into Manhattan every day and I thought, ‘You know what, maybe I would want to do that. I know it’s less money, but I might like that more,’” she said. “In the beginning when they first called me in, I thought, ‘Let me just see what this is about.’ But after talking to [St. John’s Athletic Department Associate Vice President] Kathy [Meehan], I thought this is intriguing and exciting and this is something I think I would want to do.”

After St. John’s first pick for the job left for another coaching opportunity, Meehan called Persico-Smith and hired her as coach of the newly formed St. John’s volleyball team in March 1994.

Little did she know, but Persico-Smith would be in for a very trying freshman campaign.

“My first year was very, very tough with many hours. We didn’t have a floor and I had to find out how to put plates in the floor,” she said. “I had the basketball coach — at that time it was Brian Mahoney — and he was circling around the court with a few of the basketball managers to see what the heck we were doing to the beloved basketball floor.”

The Red Storm also struggled on the court, going 10-25 and didn’t win one game in the Big East conference. It was a year Persico-Smith described as a “learning experience.”

After the struggles in their inaugural campaign, Persico-Smith and the Red Storm shocked the volleyball world in 1995. The team finished 24-10, including a 7-4 conference record, marking the biggest turnaround in Big East history.

“When I look back I think, ‘Did we really do that?’ We won the second year not because we were physically much better, but because we wanted it,” Persico-Smith said. “We had heart, we had learned and we came back with revenge. It proved to us that we could play in this conference and we can win in this conference.”

After a 24-7 record in 1996 and their second consecutive Big East tournament bid, the Red Storm suffered their second losing season, going 11-5 in 1997. But after that minor stumble, the team improved to 19-15 in 1998, 16-16 in 1999 and 25-8 in 2000.

And finally in 2001, the team received major accolades as senior Olga Roudovski earned Northeast Region All-American honors as well as being named to the all-Big East first team and Robyn Kurasaki — who along with Rosalyn Dang marked Persico-Smith’s first successful recruiting venture in Hawaii — was named the Big East Rookie of the Year and Northeast Region Freshman of the Year.

“Although it’s great to recruit all over, and the girls from Hawaii are great, I think I’m really happy this year because they stayed here,” she said. “It means that not only did we recruit them and entice them to come, but the people around the university, the support staff, the athletic department, must have done something right because they stayed so they must feel good about New York and they must feel good about St. John’s.”

Persico-Smith’s love of volleyball started innocently enough in Bellerose, where she played for her grammar school, St. Gregory’s the Great, and where she learned some valuable life lessons from Ernie Schwabe, who ran the Junior Girls program at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.

“I look back when I pass that church [and] I always think of Ernie because he has coached and taught and taken so many young girls from this area and said, ‘You know what, it’s OK to throw a softball hard like a guy. It’s OK to throw a football, it’s OK to throw a volleyball,’ she said of Schwabe, who died more than a decade ago.

Persico-Smith went on to play volleyball at St. Francis Prep and, at the tender age of 15, played under the direction of Merlin Thompson — now the assistant athletic director at Queens College — for the Big Apple Volleyball 18-and-under club team.

“I really got better much faster,” she said. “He, like Ernie, also took a lot of his time, and probably a lot of money out of his pocket, to make us enjoy volleyball and teach us volleyball.”

Also giving a helping hand was Joyce Ford, who was Persico-Smith’s volleyball coach at St. Francis Prep. It was during her junior year when Persico-Smith began to get noticed from a slew of Division I schools, something her late father Carmine could hardly believe.

“My father would answer the phone at home and I was a junior in 1983 and he would say, ‘Where are you from, Georgetown, and you want to speak to my daughter about a volleyball scholarship?” Persico-Smith said. “It was very exciting.”

For Persico-Smith, it continues to be exciting. And it continues to make her laugh.

“There was a fork in the road and I’m happy with the path that I’ve chosen,” she said. “I hope to stay and work as long as I can, as long as they’ll have me.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.

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