EASTON, Dad. — Grace Tulevech helped make history with the Lafayette volleyball program in her time.
The former West Carteret star was part of a league that changed a 0-16 record in the Patriot League as a freshman to a higher 12-4 season mark and second-place finish.
“I know for myself and many of my classmates that we wanted to make an impact on the program, and I feel like we did,” Tulevech said. “I think we have it ready for the future.”
After going 5-23 overall and winless in the league as a freshman, the class helped the Leopards set an overall record of 13-9 as a sophomore.
They had the most wins of the program in 10 years. The team had taken a combined 9-69 in the past three seasons and hadn’t finished above .500 since 2009, when it scored 14-13.
Lafayette still struggled in the Patriot League, but went 2-14 to finish last again in the nine-team conference.
After a junior campaign cut short by a coronavirus pandemic, their senior year looked unlike anything ever seen on the schedule as the Leopards (15-10) took the most wins and highest placings in their history.
“We’ve worked so hard and it’s hard to stay positive and confident when you’re not seeing results, but this year it finally came together,” Tulevech said.
She was second on the team with 207 kills, hitting double digits in 11 of 25 games, and third on the team by 45 blocks. She was ranked 10th in the Patriot League with a 0.254 pass rate.
“I played outside in my first and second years, then switched to the right as a junior and senior, and in the end I loved it,” she said. “It was much more aligned with what I’m good at, standing in the front row, being big.”
After losing to eventual conference champion Colgate (18-10, 13-3) in their Patriot League season opener, the Leopards recorded five straight victories.
The fourth win in that stretch was a 3-0 sweep in the program’s first-ever win over rival American (19-14, 11-5). Tulevech had a season high of 14 kills in that match.
She then registered 11 kills and four blocks in the fifth straight win, a 3-1 win over Loyola Maryland (17-11, 9-7). On senior day, she had 13 kills and three blocks in a 3-1 win over Navy (13-14, 8-8).
The win in the regular season finals gave the team its third straight win, but the fourth-seeded American upset second-seeded Lafayette in the semifinals of the Patriot League Tournament in a 3-1 game.
“It kind of sucks that we didn’t win everything, but it’s definitely an improvement from what was predicted to us,” Tulevech said. “It was a bummer, but it was a strong team.”
The Patriot League Volleyball Preseason Poll ranked the team second from bottom.
One of the few provincial athletes to ever earn a Division I volleyball scholarship, Tulevech is no stranger to putting down big numbers. She is arguably the best player in West Carteret history after setting a school record with 859 kills.
And she sparkled a lot in her first two years in Easton, Pa.
As a freshman, she started all 28 games and led the team in kills with 310, which was 54 more than anyone on the squad and ranked second most by a Leopards freshman in a single season.
She also led the team in kills per set with 3.16, finishing fourth in the Patriot League. She was second on the team with 48 blocks, fourth with 166 digs and fifth with 14 aces.
She finished second to Lafayette with 356 kills as a sophomore and was one of only two players to reach 300 kills with Leanna Deegan leading the team by 372 blocks. Tulevech was also third on the team with 56 blocks.
Her move to the right side has paid off for the team this season. After spinning with Deegan on the outside, Deegan got more chances at the position and took advantage of it, becoming the first player in program history to capture the Patriot League Player of the Year.
She finished the season with 472 kills and was the NCAA Division I leader in kills per set with 5.76, while also adding 180 digs, 24 blocks and 17 service aces.
“Having her on the outside and me on the right worked better for our team,” Tulevech said. “She’s been really good since her freshman year, but from the end of her junior year to her senior year she got a lot more consistent and called in. She started finding the field more and rocking every game. She had a crazy year .”
Thanks to Deegan, Tulevech and fellow senior Madi Wahrmund (167 kills), the Leopards were first in the Patriot League with a success rate of 0.226 and second in kills with 13.58.
Despite the offensive firepower, Tullevech credited the team’s turnaround to the defense, which was led by underclass players.
Sophomore Katie Weston led the team with 442 digs. Freshman Carson Grace Toomer was fourth with 163, and sophomore setter Alyssa Vitale was fifth at 160.
“We got some really good defensive classes coming in, and that’s what we really needed,” Tulevech said. “Once we had a stronger defense I think that turned the tide. We were able to defend and stay in rallies. Katie and Carson Grace, who is from Wilmington, were a really good combination. I was really proud of them.”
She also credited Ryan Adams, who took over as coach in her sophomore season and became the first Patriot League Coach of the Year in program history last season.
“I went to talk to him and (assistant coach) Colton (Reinholtz) about two or three times a week, simply because they are good people in addition to being good coaches,” Tulevech said. “We had a big say in who the school hired as the new coach. The school has involved us, so it’s really cool to see that our voice matters.”
In addition to coping with a change in coaching and a coronavirus pandemic during her college career, while helping her team climb from the depths to the heights of the conference, Tulevech also became a surprise TikTok star.
She has 2.4 million followers on the short video site and her videos have been liked a whopping 134.2 million times.
“TikTok is definitely on the back burner these days,” she said. “It’s cool to make some extra money working with brands, but now I’m just doing it for fun. I am more focused on school and work. Those are the things that will get me through life.”
Tulevech was also a notable student. She finished fifth in her class at West Carteret, was a member of the National Honor Society and vice president of her class, while also co-manager of the school’s food supply. She will graduate with a biology degree this spring.
She has worked at Lucas Research in Morehead City during the summer and between semesters.
“I like working there,” she says. “The people are wonderful. I’m thinking of going back to work for them after I graduate, but maybe I’ll go to the (doctor’s assistant) school. We will see. I’ve lived in Morehead City all my life and I want to live in a bigger city and see if I miss the small-town vibe.”
Tullevech has an extra year to qualify due to the pandemic but says she has no intention of taking it and is ready to put her volleyball career to rest. She prefers going out on a high and fondly remembers her time in Lafayette.
“It’s a small school, and it wasn’t the best sports program, but that was part of the call to make it better.” she said. “And the training I’ve received has been great. I love my teammates and all the people I’ve met. I wouldn’t change anything.”