The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

39° Stony Brook, NY
The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

Newsletter

By sticking with volleyball, Leoni Kunz has become one of Stony Brook’s finest

Outside hitter Leoni Kunz (17) leaps to spike a set from a teammate against the University of North Carolina Wilmington on Saturday, Nov. 4. Kunz has had a good career with Stony Brook and just earned her first career All-Conference nod. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

The 2023 Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) women’s volleyball tournament is just two days away. After spending the last three weeks fighting tooth and nail to get into the playoffs, the Stony Brook women’s volleyball team learned a lot about itself and its individuals.

One thing is clear: the team can ride on outside hitter Leoni Kunz’s shoulders to find salvation. 

The Seawolves’ star senior is having the best year of her four-year career. She finished the regular season as the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 2.89 kills and 3.37 points per set. She ranks 11th in the CAA in both categories, and her .264 hitting percentage is one of the best numbers amongst outside hitters in the conference. Her stellar regular season earned her a selection to the 2023 All-CAA Second Team — the first All-Conference honor of her Stony Brook career.

Kunz is not one to take the credit. Rather, she gives it to others. In this case, she credits setter Torri Henry and her other teammates for what has been the best season of her career.

“We’ve still got a pretty similar team to last year, so a little bit of the comfortability from that is really nice to have,” Kunz said in an interview with The Statesman. “I have a really good relationship with Torri; we’re amazing friends off the court and our chemistry on the court is great, too. She just gives me the ball so well.”

Her tenure with the Seawolves has seen her continuously improve, becoming more dangerous by the year. However, there was a time that playing collegiate volleyball did not seem to be in the cards for Kunz.

Growing up in Knoxville, Tenn., Kunz was surrounded by all kinds of sports as a child — but not volleyball. Her parents — Brigitte and Christian — grew up in Austria and were both skiers. Her uncle Stephan represented Liechtenstein — a country in Western Europe — in the Winter Olympics in 1994, 1998 and 2002 in cross country skiing. She has an older brother — Florentin — who played several sports, as well.

Though Kunz gave skiing a try, the lack of snowfall in Tennessee prevented her from following in her family’s footsteps. Instead, she tried just about everything her brother did: basketball, swimming, figure skating, soccer, gymnastics, cross country, track and even ice hockey when her feet got too big for female skates.

Growing up with athletic genes, Kunz was tall for her age and very skinny. Her lack of heft saw her get pushed around on the basketball court, but her height presented her with an opportunity to succeed in volleyball. During her eighth grade year when she was 13 years old, Kunz decided to give volleyball a try.

Then, she fell in love with it.

“I like the aspect of a team and that every point counts,” Kunz said. “It’s fun, it’s like a big game of keep the balloon off the ground. When I swam, it was such a ‘to yourself’ sport … I needed a more social sport.”

She was an instant hit on the volleyball court. In the same eighth grade season, Kunz was pulled up the varsity team for Webb School of Knoxville. Though her inexperience in the sport held her back, her older teammates’ guidance did wonders for her development as a player.

The team included Nicklin Hames — who went on to be an All-American setter for Nebraska — and her sister Kayleigh, who played libero for Pepperdine for four seasons. Surrounded by NCAA Division I talent, Kunz sponged up as much knowledge as she could.

“They influenced me in so many ways on and off the court and matured me as a player and as a person,” Kunz said. “The team just stayed stacked with good players; it was a super-competitive environment.”

Playing with the big kids paid off for Kunz, as her team went on to win the state championship her eighth grade year. In her freshman year of high school, the team went back-to-back and won it all again.

Coming off consecutive state championships, Kunz did not return to play for Webb in her sophomore year. She suffered an injury that took a toll on her mental state, causing frustration to the point of wanting to quit. Instead, she spent the year as an exchange student in Germany living with a host family to experience more of the world outside of her bubble.

The trip to Germany looked to be the end of the road for Kunz’s volleyball career, but her host family’s guidance changed everything.

“I had no intention to continue playing volleyball because I just wanted a break from everything,” Kunz said. “Then I got over there, and my host family was super awesome and they were like, ‘No, just try it out.’ So I tried it.”

After briefly pausing her career, Kunz picked volleyball back up and played professionally in Liechtenstein. At just 15 years old, Kunz was playing against fully-grown women in a country with a drastically different style of volleyball.

The exposure to Europe’s professional players helped Kunz evolve her game. 

“I got there and I was so shocked because all the girls were older,” Kunz said. “These were grown-ass women who I’m playing with and I’m just a sophomore in high school. International players, they’re just funky in the way they hit the ball. That helped me as a defensive player in reading that and not assuming what they’re going to do. It’s just a different style. It’s kind of gritty. It’s kind of nasty, but it works.”

Though the experience playing internationally was a positive one for Kunz, she was still reluctant to continue her volleyball career upon returning home. In fact, she did not even want to stay in the United States after spending the year in Germany. However, her mother urged her to stick with the sport, and she returned to play for Webb in her junior year.

Having Kunz back made Webb a title team again. Her decision to return to the volleyball team paid off and resulted in another state championship in 2018. In her senior season, a back injury cut her farewell to high school volleyball short, but her love for the sport did not waver this time around.

In December 2019, Kunz flew back to Germany to represent Liechtenstein in international competition against Luxembourg and Andorra. Playing for her family’s native country was the honor of a lifetime.

“Knowing that I was representing the country that [my dad] was raised in and also representing the country that my uncle represented in the Olympics, it meant a lot,” Kunz said. “It was really important … it was a great opportunity. It just meant a lot to represent.”

Due to her prior indecisiveness about volleyball, Kunz’s college recruitment was stunted. Most of the players from Tennessee in her age group were committing to schools by the end of their freshman and/or sophomore years, but she had not even decided to play collegiately until her junior season.

Recruitment from colleges was scarce for Kunz, but she had strict expectations for her potential suitors. She wanted to play on the West Coast and did not want to go north, either. She did not want to give Stony Brook the time of day, but her parents swayed her to answer one email, which led to an official visit that changed everything.

“I was so dead set, I was like, ‘I’m not going anywhere Northeast, ew,’” Kunz said. “I went on an official visit and the coaching staff really persuaded me … the good team culture and the family feel is pretty much what got me to go to Stony Brook.”

Though her freshman season was delayed from the fall of 2020 to the following spring, she made an immediate impact and became one of the team’s centerpieces. She played the most sets on the team and averaged 2.41 kills and 2.67 points per set as a rookie before stepping into a bigger role in the fall of 2021.

Kunz began to flourish in her sophomore season after head coach Kristin Belzung moved her from the right side to the outside. She started all 27 of the Seawolves’ matches and led them with 271 kills and 298 points, which ranked fourth and fifth in the America East Conference (AE), respectively. She earned her first career league honor — the AE Player of the Week — on Sept. 14, 2021.

After her sophomore season ended, Stony Brook left the AE and joined the CAA, where Kunz continued her upward trajectory. She set a new personal best with 276 kills and averaged over three points per set for the first time in her career. Her .283 hitting percentage was the fifth-best number in the CAA. Kunz’s strong junior season helped the Seawolves sneak into the 2022 CAA women’s volleyball tournament as the eighth seed.

Of course, Kunz credits her successful Stony Brook career to Belzung and her staff’s work.

“Our coaches are so good,” Kunz said. “They do so much for us; it’s more than you expect. A lot of the things I get kills on is because they tell me to do it. They know exactly how to communicate with me when I’m stressed. I think that’s something that’s forced me into being a force on the court.”

Kunz is a business major with a specialization in finance and a minor in real estate and insurance. She completed an internship in wealth management at Morgan Stanley — an investment banking company — this past summer, and she plans on getting her Master of Business Administration degree next year. 

Kunz has one year left of NCAA eligibility left due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but she is not yet sure if she will exercise it or not. For now, her focus is on winning a championship.

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Statesman

Your donation will support the student journalists of Stony Brook University. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
About the Contributor
Kenny Spurrell, Assistant Sports Editor
Kenny Spurrell is an Assistant Sports Editor of The Statesman. He is a senior English major and journalism minor at Stony Brook University. He began covering sports for The Statesman during the Fall 2021 semester. Since then, he has covered men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s lacrosse and football. His passion for sports derives from his many years of playing basketball, football and baseball. He is a Long Island native from Selden, N.Y. and has dreams of becoming a sports journalist.
Donate to The Statesman

Comments (0)

All The Statesman Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *