By Leigh Dethman
Luka Slabe could have played volleyball at UCLA, Santa Barbara or Hawaii.
So how did this non-religious outside hitter on the men”s volleyball team, from a city most of us can”t even pronounce, end up in little Provo, Utah?
Slabe has always had two goals for what he wanted to do with his life: go to school and play volleyball. In serene little Provo, Slabe could focus on those goals.
“If I went to UCLA, Santa Barbara or Hawaii, I was going to do more stupid things than anything else,” Slabe said. “That is why I came here. It was just the best place for me.”
Slabe made the right choice. In 2001, he led BYU to the national championship by defeating one of the schools he turned down – UCLA.
But Slabe isn”t satisfied with just one national trophy.
“Once you win the championship, which happened for me in 2001, you just think ”I want another one,”” Slabe said. “You still want to have two, three or four.”
And Slabe expects his teammates to have that same drive.
“If you don”t want to win a championship, if that is not your goal, then just stay away,” Slabe said. “Don”t play.”
Although volleyball was a major factor of his life in Ljubljana, Slovenia, it was surprisingly music that was his passion as a child.
Slabe tried his hand in many sports during his elementary school years, but fell in love with classical and jazz music.
Slabe attended musician”s school for eight years, focusing on playing the clarinet and saxophone. He fell in love with the jazz beats of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.
But in the eighth grade, Slabe met the man that would introduce him to the game that would change his life.
Slabe”s physics teacher coached a local club volleyball team and saw potential in the young man.
“He just asked me if I wanted to come and play with him,” Slabe said. “He gave me a chance to play volleyball.”
When Slabe turned 14, he was forced to make one of the toughest decisions of his life: volleyball or music.
Slabe had to choose between a high school that focused only on music and a school that allowed him to play sports.
“I was trying to figure out what was best for me,” Slabe said. “I couldn”t go to two schools at the same time. But I chose to play sports.”
In high school, volleyball consumed his life. Slabe would practice seven or eight hours every day.
At a small 6-foot-1, Slabe wasn”t tall enough to compete with most volleyball players. He refused to let that disadvantage keep him from playing the game.
Instead of giving up, Slabe turned volleyball into a full-time job.
He ran, lifted weights, worked on agilities and played volleyball every possible minute.
“Since the eighth grade, my life was just volleyball and school – day and night,” Slabe said.
After having to give up his music to focus on the sport, Slabe continued to make additional compromises to perfect his game.
Slabe sacrificed a social life, a part of life most teenagers consider priceless.
“I couldn”t go down to the beach with my friends, I couldn”t go out and party, I didn”t do anything,” Slabe said. “I didn”t hang out with my friends because if I went to bed too late, I wouldn”t be able to wake up at six the next day.”
Possibly even more difficult than giving up his playtime with friends, Slabe left his girlfriend in Slovenia to come to the States to play volleyball.
“I told her when we started dating that I planned to go overseas to play volleyball and go to school,” Slabe said.
Slabe left for BYU in January 2000. He knew little about Provo, so he asked the local LDS missionaries to tell him about his new home.
“I didn”t know anything about the LDS church,” Slabe said. “I talked to some missionaries back home just to figure out what was going on here. It is not even close to what they told me.”
Girlfriend Tina Cepelnik followed him to Provo five months after Slabe came to town. The couple was married in July that year.
Being in a foreign country with all the stresses of college life has been tough on Slabe.
Even without the distractions of UCLA, Hawaii or Santa Barbara, Slabe reached a breaking point.
In the middle of BYU”s victory over against Red Deer on Jan. 10, Slabe had an exchange with coach Tom Peterson and left the court.
Most fans assumed he had been injured, but it wasn”t a physical injury that drove Slabe off the court. The pressure had finally gotten to him.
Slabe didn”t return to the game and took the next few days off.
“I took a couple days off to think about how I am going to survive the rest of the semester,” Slabe said. “It was not an injury.
“Everything was in one pile. My parents were here, school started, practice, the season – everything,” he said. “It was just too much pressure for me at the time.”
Changes in the coaching staff also added to Slabe”s pile of pressures.
Slabe had had to change his playing style after his initial move to the States. He wasn”t used to the system or style of play and had to adjust and find a feel for the game.
He also had to adjust under the direction of legendary coach Carl McGowan.
“When I came here, I started working with McGowan and that was a shock for me. The way he coaches is way different from the way they coach in Europe. But I just sucked it in and did what he told me to do,” he said.
Slabe thrived under McGowan, bringing home the 2001 national title.
Now, Slabe is having to recreate his game under the style of head coach Tom Peterson, McGowan”s replacement.
“The mentality is different and it is not as intense as in the past,” Slabe said. “To be honest, it is hard. We all know that, but the only way to be successful is to just shut up and do whatever it takes.”
Slabe has decided he could handle the pressure, and returned to the team for its road trip to Stanford.
The lingering question is “Can Luka survive the rest of the demanding volleyball season?”
We”ll see. If Slabe wants another championship title, he”ll have to handle the pressure.
“I will try to do whatever it takes to win another championship,” Slabe said.