Photo courtesy SCSU Athletic Communications
Competitive athletics are one of the reasons why the journey taken by Nekane Mendizabal to achieve success as a student-athlete at Southern Connecticut State University has been a well-traveled one. However, to solely characterize her as “just a volleyball player” wouldn’t begin to do justice to this well-rounded young woman.
After leading Bunnell High of Stratford to a perfect 25-0 record and the first of three straight state championships, and earning state Gatorade Player of the Year honors, Nekane Mendizabal first opted to try spreading her collegiate wings at Alderson-Broaddus College in West Virginia.
The reality is that over the course of her lifetime, Mendizabal has enjoyed the tropical climes of both Florida and Mexico, along with harsh, snow-filled winters on the northern shore of Long Island Sound. The driving force behind those stops across North America was her father, Jose Luis, a professional jai alai player for parts of four decades.
Jose Luis’ last stop as a professional was in Connecticut, where he settled his family in the town of Stratford, where Nekane emerged as one of the top scholastic volleyball players in the state. As a senior, Nekane led Bunnell High to a perfect 25-0 record, the CIAC Class LL girls’ volleyball championship, and was named Connecticut’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
Naturally, when faced with one of the biggest decisions of young adulthood – selecting a college – athletics played a key role in the process. Mendizabal originally packed her bags and headed off to Alderson-Broaddus College in central West Virginia. After a year away from her family and friends, Mendizabal was ready to come home.
“The first semester [at Alderson-Broaddus], I decided that I didn’t like things, but that I would stick it out for the rest of the year,” explains Mendizabal. “Since I was homesick, I started considering Connecticut schools.”
Mendizabal contacted Owls’ coach Lisa Barbaro, who also coaches softball for the Owls. Barbaro was already familiar with the talent the 6-foot middle blocker possessed. It wasn’t long before Mendizabal had made the decision to sign on at SCSU.
“At the time that she was coming out of high school, she was probably one of the best players in the state, if not the best,” Barbaro said. “But she was interested in wanting to go away from home and trying to get a new experience.”
The student-athlete and coach made an immediate connection, in part due to the fact that Barbaro was intimately familiar with the situation that Mendizabal was experiencing. Like Mendizabal, Barbaro, another Connecticut native, had originally spurned her home state schools to attend college in South Carolina. Two years later, Barbaro was back in the Nutmeg State and had found a home at SCSU.
“Nekane and I were able to make a connection because we had similar experiences,” says Barbaro. “I did the same thing when I was being recruited. I was ambitious to go south, to branch out and try something new.”
From the outset, it was evident that a return home was just what the doctor ordered for Mendizabal. She stepped right in last fall and earned All-Northeast-10 honors for the Owls after leading the conference in blocks.
SCSU coach Lisa Barbaro, who had also left Connecticut to pursue her dream elsewhere before realizing there’s no place like home and returning to finish her college career at Southern, was instrumental in getting Mendizabal to return home.
This year, she was elected co-captain as a junior. Mendizabal responded by putting together another strong campaign on the individual front, picking up Northeast-10 Weekly Honor Roll recognition three times. Off the court, the exercise science major continues to excel as well. She carries a 3.34 grade point average and has previously been named to the NE-10 Commissioner’s Honor Roll.
Mendizabal has also given her time to various community service initiatives. She volunteers with Stratford Youth Soccer and also participated in the 2007 HealthNet Nutmeg State Games Torch Run on July 29 as part of the event’s Opening Ceremonies.
“A student-athlete of her caliber, with her athletic ability, experience and leadership qualities, she’s the type of person that you want to build a team around,” notes Barbaro. “She’s a team volleyball player with a tremendous love for the game. She’s a gamer who is very involved in team-building and community service events that will bring the team together.”