In four years, competitive volleyball went from something Marlena Budna was curious about to her ticket to a college scholarship.
The Fort Hamilton senior middle hitter came into the school having only played volleyball during gym class in elementary school and recreationally here and there. Tigers volleyball coach Richard Sherry was her gym teacher freshman year and she immediately inquired about joining the team.
“I always liked it,” Budna said. “I hadn’t really played it in an organized way, but I always wanted to play and try it and it worked out.”
During her time in Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton became one of the elite volleyball programs in the city. It won three-straight Public School Athletic League city titles, including its first Class A crown last season. Budna is heading to Division I St. Peter’s College to play next season.
To cap it off, she received the league’s Wingate Award along with 49 other athletes during a ceremony at the Brooklyn Marriot on June 9. The honor is given to the top senior student-athlete in each sport.
“It’s just an honor to represent our borough, our school,” Budna said. “We started from the bottom and then we won three city championships.”
She, like the program, grew slowly. Budna admitted to not being able to serve and credited Sherry and her teammates for sticking with her. She joined the Jewish Community House volleyball program and saw her game blossom.
“It was something to do after our season ended,” she said. “I wasn’t just sitting at home. It expanded me as a player, to learn more and keep playing and playing harder.”
Budna also drew inspiration from Fort Hamilton boy’s volleyball player Eduard Nogay, who was also the girls’ team’s manager. He returned to the volleyball court despite a battle with cancer before finally succumbing after his 18th birthday in June 2013.
“I really want to play my best for him,” Budna said. “He was very dedicated to the sport. Everything volleyball related, because of him I just don’t stop. I keep pushing at it.”
The Tigers won the Class B city title in his honor that fall, and Budna matured into one of the city’s best all-around players.
As dangerous as she is putting balls down at the net, she is equally effective in the back row. Budna finished with 17 kills and seven digs in Fort Hamilton’s victory over Susan Wagner for the Class A city title this season. She compiled 415 kills and 191 blocks during her four-year career.
Sherry credits her with helping to draw girls to the program. People wanted to play with someone as talented as her and saw how she was able to excel in such a short period time. Budna and teammates Sharon Gonzalez (St. Peter’s) and Alexandra (Georgetown) will all be playing Division I volleyball next fall.
“She really set a high bar for us, having people wanting to come to Fort Hamilton to play volleyball,” Sherry said. “In the past, it wasn’t even thought about.”
Budna’s future includes playing volleyball at St. Peter’s with Gonzalez. The school gave her the best chance to play at the Division I level and stay close at home. Her journey from a volleyball novice to a budding star is one Sherry believes those that come after her can learn from.
“I use her as an example,” Sherry said. “She came in her not knowing how to play. Now she is a going to a Division I school.”