Cullen’s quiet quirkiness rallies team

According to teammates and coaches, Kara Cullen’s bite is definitely worse than her bark.

Cullen, a 6-foot-1 powerhouse middle hitter on the Gannon University volleyball team, has been a cornerstone for the Knights since her arrival in fall 2008.

Her accolades speak for themselves – in high school, she was named “Boston Globe” Player of the Year in 2007, was a two-time Massachusetts Volleyball Coaches Association Division I all-state selection and was awarded All-America honors by maxpreps.com.

As a true freshman at Gannon, she led the team in block solos, block assists and total blocks and finished second in kills. She also led the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and ranked 17th of all NCAA Division II players in blocks per game.

She has only gotten better since then; as a sophomore she was again the team leader in both solo and assisted blocks, but also led in hitting percentage as well. She earned all-region status that year as well, a feat that she repeated in her junior year, in which she also recorded a personal-best hitting percentage of .324. This was the third-highest of PSAC players and the eighth-best single-season effort in Gannon history.

But the statistics and awards are not what make her the player she is.

In fact, coach Matt Darling said that he is not quite sure what makes Cullen tick even after four years as her coach.

“Kara is definitely one of a kind, but the secret of her personality remains elusive to me,” he said. “She seems to be very open with her friends and teammates, and I’ve loved coaching her every day, but I’ve only had a few glimpses into the real Kara Cullen.”

Senior setter Alex DelPiombo, Cullen’s friend and teammate of four years, said that she enjoys being around Cullen because of her ability to put everyone around her at ease.

“She is the most laid back person I know,” DelPiombo said. “She has a way of being shy yet completely outrageous at the same time.”

DelPiombo said she believes this quality not only makes Cullen a good friend, but a good teammate as well.

“She brings a calm attitude in stressed situations that help balance the rest of us out,” she said. “Plus she is an amazing volleyball player and you can always count on her to get a kill or block just when you need it.”

Though he couldn’t put his finger on what exactly makes her unique, Darling definitely saw something in the Marstons Mills, Mass. native when he began recruiting her in 2007 when she was a sophomore at Barnstable High School.

“I was on the lookout for players who I felt could help us turn the program around,” he said. “She wasn’t a polished player, but she was tall and very athletic; I felt we could train her to become a star.”

Cullen had another thing going for her during her high school career: she was very used to winning. Under head coach Tom Turco, Cullen was part of a varsity team that won four Division I state championships and lost only two matches during her career at Barnstable.

Though she had multiple offers from other schools, Cullen said she was enticed by the opportunity to rebuild the program at Gannon, as well as the connection she felt to the other girls and Darling.

“It was definitely the team dynamic and the idea of building up the program, because it wasn’t exactly stellar when I first got here,” she said.

Cullen is now an integral part of a group that may prove to be the most successful the program has seen in years. The rebuilding process that began long before her arrival is now paying off, as the Knights are in position to make a run at a conference championship.

“This year we want to make it out of the region,” Cullen said. “We’ve been in the same position the past two years, losing in the first round to the same team (Wheeling Jesuit).”

Cullen said that since her final year at Gannon is coming to a close, she is not holding anything back in her desire to help lead the team to success.

“I know you should always do this, but I definitely just wanna go all out and give it everything because it’s my last year,” she said.

Darling and DelPiombo both said that they see Cullen as a team leader, but that she does not go about it in conventional ways, as she is not very vocal.

“She’s kind of the spirit of the team,” Darling said. “When she’s playing well and making great kills, it pumps up the entire team.

“She’s a good person and is kind of manic at times, and she’s developed her own leadership style around these two qualities.”

DelPiombo also said that Cullen is a hard-worker and a silent leader who leads by example, and freshman libero Taryn Graham said that Cullen helped facilitate her transition into collegiate volleyball.

“Kara truly gives to the team on and off the court,” she said. “She made it easy for me to feel comfortable and part of the team when I first came to Gannon.”

Graham also said that she thinks Cullen has been a good role model for all of the freshmen. This claim goes along with Cullen’s personal goal of rebuilding the program, beginning as a freshman but continuing long after she is gone.

“Being able to see the growth from freshman year and seeing how the program has built up makes me want to do what I can to make sure the improvement doesn’t end when our class leaves,” she said.

However, the absence of her presence will certainly be felt.

“She’s such a unique and fun person, and I love the way that her personality infects others,” Darling said. “It’s almost impossible to be unhappy when Kara is being Kara.

“I’m really going to miss having her around when this season is over.”

Darling might have a little longer to wait if Cullen and the rest of the Knights can help extend their season deep into the post-season, something they are all working to do.

CHRISTINE PEFFER

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