Volleyball is the most popular sport in Ella Saada’s hometown of Kfar Masaryk in northern Israel. She grew up watching her three older brothers play for the hometown team, wearing the red and white of the Mate Asher professional club. “As a kid I always went to watch them,” says Saada ’21, a forensic science major in the College of Arts and Sciences and member of the Syracuse University women’s volleyball team.
Saada’s oldest brother played for the Israeli national team in the past, and another brother is still on the national team, representing the country in international tournaments and competitions. “We always played volleyball outside my house, in the backyard,” she says. The high level of backyard competition improved her game, and she was playing on a school team at age 9.
At 13, Saada left home to attend the Wingate Institute, a highly competitive boarding school in Israel, where she had access to state-of-the-art fitness equipment and training. The intensive training helped improve her volleyball game, and Saada joined the national team herself as a sophomore in high school. Living on her own instilled a sense of independence. After graduating, Saada joined the Israeli armed forces and served in a program specifically for athletes. After her military service commitment was completed, she heard from a coach in Israel about the Syracuse volleyball team, and the high level of competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference enticed her to apply.
College would be her first time studying in a second language. “I learned English less than a year before I came to Syracuse,” Saada says. She related to the struggles of her first-year peers living on their own for the first time and lent a friendly ear, helping to support them.
“In Israel, I was one of the youngest on the team. And in Syracuse, I was one of the oldest on the team,” Saada says. Her volleyball skills and early experiences living away from home and balancing the demands of being a student-athlete made her a dependable contributor immediately. She has played in every match since she joined the team in 2017 as an outside hitter.
Off the court, Saada’s teammates can rely on her to provide a positive example. Because she served as a member of the Israeli military for two years after high school, Saada thought she might be at a slight disadvantage. “In America, most people finishing high school start college. They don't really have a break. But for me, I was not in school for two years,” she says. Being out of practice hasn’t hampered her success, and furthermore her life experiences have made her a resource. The habits needed to meet the demands of NCAA Division I student-athlete are similar to those she developed balancing the responsibilities of active service and volleyball. “I have conversations with my teammates and my friends, who obviously are younger than me,” she says. “But I’m trying to help them and explain what I know from my experience, passing it on to them.”
Now at home in Israel, Saada plays as much volleyball as possible, but she misses her friends and teammates. She completed her courses last semester remotely and found she liked distance learning. Having courses delivered via video allowed her to review material and study at her own pace.
Her goals for this season are to spend more time working on her game and in the weight room, getting in the best shape possible. “Obviously, I want us to make the NCAA tournament again. That’s the big goal,” she says. Personally, she wants to be more vocal on the court. “As a leader, I want to be more easily accessible and provide more help for my teammates.”