For Israel Volleyball Champion Cum Neurology Student, Winning Is All in the Head

Hapoel Kfar Sava’s Nitzan Gepstein found a balance between her science studies and volleyball to lead her team to the State Cup final.

Nitzan Gepstein doesn’t get excited anymore before volleyball games, at least not regular league games. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she has been wrapped up in volleyball since she was in fourth grade. However, last night was rather unusual.

Some 15 years after she followed her sister into the sport, Gepstein received another chance to win Israel’s State Cup as captain of her Hapoel Kfar Sava team.

The team lost to Kiryat Ata, which has been a dynasty in Israeli volleyball. The defending champion won the match 3-1, with individual set scores of 25-21, 21-25, 25-18 and 25-17.

“I’m tense in the positive sense,” Gepstein, 24, said the day before the final against the perennial favorite. “Games like these revive the excitement in me that has dissipated over the years.”

The desire to win has been unquenchable for the captain. Last year, she and her teammates were close to breaking Kiryat Ata’s monopoly on the State Cup, “but we lost at the last moment,” she notes. “We showed up at the game as underdogs, and we made a lot of mistakes because of the nervousness.”

While Gepstein clearly wanted to win last night, make no mistake: As much as the game was important to her, volleyball takes second place in her life. That’s unavoidable for her as a full-time student at the school of neurological science at Tel Aviv University.

Each day for Gepstein starts in class at eight in the morning and ends at ten at night, after a two-hour practice. “Regretfully, our sport is still not where it should be,” she says. “It’s a wonderful sport, and it is simply saddening that it is still impossible to make a living from it in Israel.”

On the other hand, Gepstein says she has noticed a clear improvement since the so-called Selinger Project, named for the legendary Hall of Fame head coach Arie Selinger, who led the U.S. women’s team to a silver medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics and was brought back to Israel to revive the women’s national team. The team advanced to the European Championship last year and fans are beginning to fill the stands.

“I really hope that she will stay with us after her studies as well,” says Ofra Abramowitz, chairwoman of Hapoel Kfar Sava. “Nitzan is an asset to the team, and we won’t let her go so quickly.”

Abramowitz says Gepstein’s value isn’t felt only on the court. “She is not so much a superstar or the most dominant hitter on the team and she isn’t necessarily aware of being [a key player],” says Abramowitz. “There are leaders who yell, but she has a special way of connecting with everyone.”

Gepstein says that the closeness between the players is the source of the team’s strength. “The friendship among us extends far beyond practice,” she says. “We are kind of like a big family, in which everyone puts in for everyone else and fights for each other whenever needed. It’s the thing that has gotten that extra something out of us in recent years.”

When Hapoel Kfar Sava returned to life four years ago, Gepstein left rival Neve Sha’anan to return to the club of her youth. “She helped us build everything from scratch and kept moving forward with us,” says Abramowitz.

Defending champion Kiryat Ata. which is built mainly on foreign acquisitions, and which this season picked up national team member Anna Velikiy, claimed its 10th cup in team history.

Yael Benvenisti