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10/21/2021 12:00 AM

Stakaj Stands Tall for T-Birds’ Volleyball

Senior Franceska Stakaj is in her second season as a starter middle hitter for the North Branford girls’ volleyball squad. Photo courtesy of Franceska Stakaj

Franceska Stakaj quickly fell in love with volleyball after being introduced to the sport by her family. Now a senior on the North Branford girls’ volleyball team, Franceska has transformed herself into a pivotal member of the varsity squad as a starting middle hitter.

Franceska first started playing volleyball at North Branford Intermediate School in 8th grade. Franceska’s mother Mirela played the sport while growing up in Europe, and her older sister Emanuela competed for the T-Birds. With her uncle Arthur also in the mix, Franceska grew up playing a lot of volleyball and was encouraged by her family to join the high school program.

“My mom played volleyball in high school, and my older sister played, as well. I was inspired by them to play,” says Franceska. “I would always play with them outside. Any chance I had to play, I’d join in. I am pretty tall, so they encouraged me to try out for the team.”

Volleyball instantly clicked for Franceska as soon as she started playing the sport. While she had previously tried swimming and dance, Franceska found that volleyball was a better fit. In addition to her sister, Franceska’s new teammates made her feel welcome the moment that she stepped on the court.

Franceska played for North Branford’s JV team as a freshman. Her sister was a senior at the time. While it was a bit nerve-wracking to play high school volleyball at first, Franceska received a ton of support from her fellow Thunderbirds.

“I was very scared. But I had my older sister alongside me to coach me and welcome me to the team. Many of my other friends were on the team, as well,” Franceska says. “I felt very close and safe on the team.”

Franceska continued playing JV for most of her sophomore season. However, in North Branford’s last regular season match, an away game against Hand, Franceska stepped on the varsity floor as a sub for the Thunderbirds. Franceska’s coaches saw the potential in her, and she felt proud of herself for getting a varsity nod in only her third year of playing volleyball.

Franceska carried that momentum into her junior season, when she became a varsity starter for North Branford as a middle hitter. Franceska says that making the full-time jump to varsity was a big transition as she now had more responsibilities on her shoulders.

“I had a very big jump. I was starting varsity middle,” says Franceska. “Everyone expected me to be aggressive at the net and do my job.”

Franceska has been a middle hitter ever since she started playing volleyball. Through the years, Franceska, who stands 5 feet, 11 inches, has learned that the position is all about aggressiveness and one’s ability to get to the ball, whether that be on offense or defense.

“It’s a hard position. You have to run back and forth from each side, following the ball and blocking the ball. You have to be aggressive,” Franceska says. “Everyone expects you to go get the blocks. Everyone counts on me, because I’m tall and intimidating. But I’m just a sweet girl who loves the sport.”

While she knows that being aggressive is a key component of playing middle hitter, Franceska admits that it wasn’t her strongest suit as a freshman. However, during her time with the T-Birds, Franceska’s family, coaches, and teammates have helped her become more confident on the court, thereby allowing her to stay aggressive and keep a level head no matter what.

“As a freshman, I wasn’t very aggressive. Everyone saw it. I was scared to hit the ball. But having my parents, siblings, and coaches help push me through it, I’ve gotten more aggressive,” says Franceska. “I’m proud of myself. Even if I make a mistake, I shake it off and tell myself I’ll get the next one.”

As she finishes out her time with the T-Birds, Franceska is excited to continue building chemistry with her teammates in North Branford’s quest to make the Shoreline Conference Tournament. After graduation, Franceska is hoping to play volleyball in college, while pursuing a career in either physical therapy or dermatology.

Franceska always feels proud to don her Thunderbirds’ jersey on the volleyball court. Win or lose, Franceska wants her teammates to know that they can rely upon her in any situation.

“I’m very proud to compete with North Branford. The times we’ve had together, whether rough or good, I’ve always been proud of everyone,” Franceska says. “I hope everyone ends with a great season. I’m always there, I’ll always be there to help. I’m a person you can count on.”