Spartan sister act

From the Case Western Reserve University Department of Athletics

Sisters serve many roles—just ask anyone who has one. From the moment they are born, sisters are each other’s collaborators, bodyguards, confidants, friends, rivals and joint sources of envy and pride. At Case Western Reserve University, they are also teammates.

Perusing through the 2011 Spartan fall rosters, it might appear as if there are several typos, as four last names are duplicated in three different lineups. That isn’t the case, however, as four sets of sisters are competing as student-athletes on three separate Spartan teams this fall.

Three of the four sets of Spartan sisters hail from different parts of the state of Ohio, while the fourth hails from California. And although their paths to University Circle have each been unique, all eight of the student-athletes have shared similar experiences and triumphs at one of the nation’s top universities.

Sisters, it seems, also work well together on the field, gymnasium and court, as Spartan women’s soccer, volleyball and women’s tennis are all in the midst of the most prosperous times in their respective program’s histories.

When asked how she portrayed the Case Western Reserve experience to her younger sister, each older sibling expressed her thoughts and feelings in a similar fashion. The younger sisters echoed many of those thoughts and also explained what a treat it was to garner advice about where to live on campus and how to go about choosing a major. In true sister fashion, they also had some interesting facts to share about their sibling.

The Spartan women’s soccer team has two sets of sisters competing this fall—Ashley and Allison Debeljak and Deena and Leah Levey. The team, nationally ranked for the first time in program history, is on pace to challenge the school record for wins along with being in the hunt for its first University Athletic Association title and NCAA Tournament berth.

Hailing from nearby Beachwood, the Debeljak sisters had many higher education options on their radar, but each chose to stay close to home and attend Case Western Reserve.

“A lot of factors impacted Allison’s decision to come to Case,” said Ashley, the older sister by two years. “We are extremely close, so she came to visit me a lot last year and she loved the environment as well as the people here. And, our dad being the head football coach may have persuaded her the most. We have played soccer for most of our lives, so it wasn’t a surprise she chose to continue playing the sport. I like having her on campus because I missed her when she was still in high school.”

Ashley is a junior, dual-majoring in psychology and sociology, while Allison is a freshman who has yet to declare a major. Adding to the CWRU connection for Ashley and Allison is their father, Greg, who has served as the head football coach of the Spartans since 2004.

“Coming to visit Ashley and seeing the environment completely convinced me that Case was the right place for me,” Allison agreed. “Ashley definitely influenced my housing choices as well. She suggested that I see if there was room in Hitchcock Hall, as a lot of student-athletes tend to congregate there, and there are just really cool people there in general.”

When considering colleges and universities, Deena Levey had many choices around her hometown of Bexley – a suburb of Columbus. But with Division III schools like Otterbein University and Capital University right in her backyard, Deena decided to trek away a little further and continue her education at Case Western Reserve. Just a year later, younger sister Leah followed in her footsteps.

“I tried very hard not to influence her too much,” said Deena, an All-UAA and Academic All-UAA performer for the Spartans. “But, I couldn’t keep myself from putting my two cents in. I told Leah how amazing the girls on the team were at Case, about the great trips we get to take in the UAA to New York, Atlanta, Chicago among others, and of course that she would already have a best friend at school.”

Leah Levey was a highly touted prospect coming out of Bexley High School. She had just been named Ohio’s Most Valuable Women’s Soccer Player after leading the Lions to the 2009 Ohio Division III State Championship. On top of that, she earned high school All-American and Academic All-American honors.

“I tried really hard my senior year to make my own decision of where I should go for college,” said Leah. “I looked at a bunch of different schools, and I made multiple visits at some of them. But, I knew Deena was happy here at Case, and since we are basically the same person, I knew I would be happy here as well. Also, playing collegiate soccer with my sister was an opportunity that would be impossible for me to turn down.”

The Spartan volleyball team made the first NCAA Tournament berth in program history in 2010 and just reached the 20-win plateau for the fourth-consecutive season. Playing a vital role in that success has been junior libero Rachel Gulasey, who excelled during her prep years at Magnificat High School in nearby Rocky River.

“When I decided on Case, my family was pretty excited because it was so close to home,” said Rachel, a 2010 All-UAA selection. “Sara would come up to visit on the weekends, and she really got to know the campus and my friends. When she started to look at schools, I really pushed for Case. I loved going to high school with my sister, so I figured college together would be even better. We are only two years apart, but this is actually the first time we have been on the same team. On and off the court we each have a pretty unique personality, which makes for an interesting combination.”

Rachel’s experience made Case an obvious destination for younger sister Sara.

“I love the atmosphere, in terms of both the academics and athletics, and the fact that I can be a true student-athlete here,” stated Sara, a freshman defensive specialist. “Playing volleyball for an excellent team is just a plus because it helps me find a balance and manage my time better. Rachel opened the door for me to view this campus, and I fell in love with it on my many visits. My sister and I have always been very close, so being able to go to such an amazing school with my sister and play volleyball just made it all worthwhile.”

The Spartan women’s tennis team is also reaching new heights, and right at the forefront of the team’s recent surge onto the national scene has been junior Erika Lim. Earlier this fall, she became the first player in program history to reach the title match of the USTA/ITA Central Region Championship.

Her experience thus far has made the trip cross country well worth it—both for her and younger sister, Alexandra, who is now her partner on the Spartans’ No. 1 doubles team.

“I told Alexandra about the amazing girls on the team and the friendships I’ve made,” said Erika, who is studying nursing. “I also thought she would fit in well with the people and the culture here at Case Western Reserve. Of course, I left out the part about the piles of snow.”

The Lim’s had a little longer trek across the United States from their hometown of Fullerton, Calif.—a city just north of Anaheim and more than 2,300 miles away from Cleveland.

“I heard about Erika’s fun and crazy tennis stories, and the great friendships that she made with the girls on the team here at Case Western Reserve,” Alexandra said. “Those experiences are what made me want to leave warm and sunny California to be a part of this new experience right alongside her.”

With Ashley Debeljak, Deena Levey, Rachel Gulasey and Erika Lim all in their junior years, there is still plenty of time for these Spartan sister acts to deliver many more memorable experiences and successes. And as evidence by the on-field performances this fall, each of these young women are relishing the opportunity to put aside the sister rivalry and team up against the competition.