EASTON, Pennsylvania— Grace Tulevech helped make history in her time with the Lafayette volleyball program.
The former West Carteret star was part of a class that turned an 0-16 Patriot League record as a rookie to a 12-4 senior season mark and a second-place finish.
“I know for me and a lot of my classmates, we wanted to impact the curriculum, and I feel like we did,” Tulevech said. “I think we have it set up for the future.”
After going 5-23 overall and winless in the league in first year, the class helped the Leopards to a 13-9 overall record in second year.
They have the most wins on the program in 10 years. The team had gone 9-69 combined in the previous three seasons and hadn’t finished above .500 since 2009, when it went 14-13.
However, Lafayette still struggled in the Patriot League, going 2-14 to again finish last in the nine-team conference.
After a junior campaign shortened by a coronavirus pandemic, their final year was unlike anything seen on the program as the Leopards (15-10) claimed the most wins and best league position in their history .
“We’ve worked so hard, and it’s hard to stay positive and confident when you don’t see results, but it all finally fell into place this year,” Tulevech said.
She ranked second on the team with 207 eliminations, tallying double-digit eliminations in 11 of 25 games, and finished third on the team with 45 blocks. She ranked 10th in the Patriot League with a .254 hit percentage.
“I played outside in my freshman and sophomore years, then moved to the right side as a junior and senior, and ended up loving it,” she said. “It was a lot more about what I’m good at, being front row, being big.”
After losing to eventual conference champion Colgate (18-10, 13-3) in their Patriot League season opener, the Leopards have won five straight.
The fourth triumph in that streak was a 3-0 sweep in the program’s first-ever win against rival USA (19-14, 11-5). Tulevech achieved a season high with 14 eliminations in this match.
She then recorded 11 kills and four blocks in the fifth straight victory, a 3-1 win over Loyola Maryland (17-11, 9-7). On the senior day, she had 13 kills and three blocks in a 3-1 win over Navy (13-14, 8-8).
Victory in the regular season finale gave the team its third straight victory, but the fourth-seeded American upset second-seeded Lafayette in the semifinals of the Patriot League tournament in a 3-1 game.
“It’s a bit of a shame that we didn’t win everything, but it’s definitely an improvement on what we planned to do,” Tulevech said. “It was a disappointment, but it was a difficult team.”
The Patriot League Volleyball Preseason Poll ranked the team second from bottom.
Tulevech, one of the county’s few athletes to ever earn a Division I volleyball scholarship, is no stranger to making big numbers. She is arguably the best player in West Carteret history after setting a school record with 859 eliminations.
And she continued to shine a lot during her first two years in Easton, Pennsylvania.
As a rookie, she started all 28 games and led the team with 310 eliminations, which was 54 more than anyone on the team and ranked second most by a Leopards freshman in a single season.
She also led the team in wins per set with 3.16, ranking fourth in the Patriot League. She was second on the team with 48 blocks, fourth with 166 digs and fifth with 14 aces.
She ranked second on Lafayette with 356 kills as a sophomore and was one of only two players to reach 300 kills with fellow sophomore Leanna Deegan leading the team with 372. Tulevech also finished third of the team with 56 blocks.
His switch to the right side has paid off for the team this season. After rotating with Deegan on the outside, Deegan had more opportunities in that position and took advantage of them, 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 adding 180 digs, 24 blocks and 17 service aces.
“Having him on the outside and me on the right side worked better for our team,” Tulevech said. “She has been very good since her first year, but from the end of her first year to her last year, she became much more coherent and composed. She started finding the pitch more and rocked it every game. She had a crazy year.
Thanks to Deegan, Tulevech and fellow senior Madi Wahrmund (167 kills), the Leopards ranked first in the Patriot League with a .226 hit percentage and second in kills with 13.58.
Despite the offensive firepower, Tulevech attributed the team’s turnaround to their defense, which was led by underclassmen.
Sophomore Katie Weston led the team with 442 digs. Carson rookie Grace Toomer was fourth at 163, and sophomore setter Alyssa Vitale was fifth at 160.
“We got some really good defensive classes, which we really needed,” Tulevech said. “Once we had a stronger defense, I think that’s what turned things around. We could defend and stay in the rallies. Katie and Carson Grace, who is from Wilmington, were a really good couple. J I was really proud of them.”
She also credited Ryan Adams, who took over as coach in his second season and who last season became the first Patriot League Coach of the Year in program history.
“I was going to sit down and talk to him and (assistant coach) Colton (Reinholtz) about two or three times a week, just because they’re good people on top of being good coaches,” Tulevech said. “We had a big say in who the school hired as the new coach. The school let us participate, so it’s really cool to see that our voices matter.
Along with coping with a coaching change and the coronavirus pandemic during his college career while helping his team climb from depths to conference heights, Tulevech has also become a surprising TikTok star.
She has 2.4 million subscribers on the site which offers short videos, and her videos have been liked 134.2 million times.
“TikTok is definitely on the back burner these days,” she said. “It’s cool to earn a little extra money working with brands, but I’m just doing it for fun now. I focus more on school and work. Those are the things that will allow me to go through life.
Tulevech was also an outstanding student. She ranked fifth in her class at West Carteret, was a member of the National Honor Society and vice president of her class while serving as co-director of the school pantry. This spring, she will graduate in biology.
She worked at Lucas Research in Morehead City during the summer and between semesters.
“I love working there,” she said. “People are great. I’m thinking of going back to work for them after I graduate, but I could go to (medical 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.
Tulevech has an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, but says she doesn’t plan to take it and is ready to end her volleyball career. She prefers to go out on a good note and fondly remember her time at 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 education I received is incredible. I love my teammates and everyone I’ve met. I wouldn’t change anything.