By John Kovach
SAINT LEO, Fla. — Two Youngstown-area women helped the Saint Leo University volleyball team to its most successful season in the 28-year history of the sport at the Florida school.
Danielle Bletso of Boardman and Leah Perry of Salem each has contributed special assets and skills to the Saints (28-3), who are ranked 12th in the nation in NCAA Division II.
Saint Leo clinched first place outright in the Sunshine State Conference standings at 15-1 with Saturday’s win over Nova Southeastern. They qualified for their fourth straight playoff berth.
Prior to that playoff streak, the Saints never had qualified for the postseason tournament in 24 years.
Saint Leo’s unbeaten league record and 22-game winning streak were snapped by Tampa, 3-1, on Nov. 4.
Bletso, a 6-foot-2 sophomore middle blocker from Boardman High, has given the Saints the height, jump and reach to block shots, while Perry, a 6-foot-0 right side hitter and a junior from Salem High, is a southpaw whose shots down the right side have made it difficult for opponents to return.
“I have a good vertical leap and a long reach. I can go up high and get over the net if I need to,” said Bletso, who has started all 29 matches and leads the team in solo blocks with 18 and is No. 2 in total blocks (96) and blocking assists (78).
She was named the SSC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season on Nov. 2, after her defensive play led the Saints to road wins over Barry, 3-2, on Oct. 30 and Lynn, 3-0, on Oct. 31.
“[Blocking shots is] mostly timing. But we practice it a lot. We focus on it a lot. You have to anticipate where the shots are going to go. Usually we have to wait until the shot is set and then try to get there on time.” said Bletso, who had a team-high eight blocks against Barry, averaging nearly 1.5 per game.
“Reaching in and over the net is important as well,” she added.
Bletso helped to contain Barry and Lynn combined to a .160 attack, averaging two kills per game and hitting at a .371 clip.
She also has contributed on offense, ranking No. 4 in kills (220) and kills percentage (2.27).
Perry, meanwhile, has played in 28 matches, starting 24 of them, and is tied for No. 5 in assists (31) and assists per set 0.38, and is No. 6 in kills (91) and No. 8 in kills per set and total blocks (96).
Bletso said Perry adds another dimension to the offense.
“She hits right side and also is a blocker there,” said Bletso. “She is a lefty as well and that helps her out [hitting shots along] the right side. It helps out with angles.”
Evan Ortiz, Saint Leo sports information director, said Bletso, according to Saints’ coaches, has the height that “touches right around 10 feet fully extended — meaning she could touch a regulation basketball rim.”
“Her jump puts her head above the net on a block pretty regularly,” he said.
Ortiz also said “Leah Perry being a lefty is very similar to a left-handed pitcher/batter — people aren’t used to facing them, so defending them can be tricky. She can hit a shot down the line on the right side that many teams cannot defend.”
Plus, “She also can be used to set the ball in situations where our primary setter had to dig the opposing team’s attack and cannot set the ball.”
Bletso and Perry have been part of the most successful period of volleyball in Saint Leo history.
The Saints are coached by Sam Cibrone, in his sixth season. He is a graduate of Slippery Rock University.
Bletso said she was recruited to Saint Leo “through my club coach. Curt Conser was my club coach at Tri-County for four years. He knows [Saint Leo] assistant coach Dan King.”
She and Perry were teammates for one season with Tri-County.”
King, a student at Geneva College, is in his fourth season as an assistant.
Bletso is the daughter of Robert and Barbara Bletso, and is majoring in early childhood education with a 3.48 grade-point average.
Perry is the daughter of Randy Perry and Lori Rusyn, and is majoring in education. Her mother played volleyball at Muskingum College.