Ozana Nikolic was only in Grade 10 when she walked into coach Diane Scott's office to ask if she could practise with the University of Winnipeg Wesmen women's volleyball team.
You'd have to give Nikolic points for creativity. That day she was just trying to find a place to play.
Fast forward four years, the 19-year-old Nikolic is in her second season with the Wesmen after being named CIS and Canada West rookie of the year last season.
"I remember the look on her face that day but Diane didn't laugh, so that was good," Nikolic, a left-side player who is working toward her degree in science, said with a smile. "She explained I had to attend the university to play for the Wesmen, but that's when I started to get to know Diane and what university volleyball was all about. I've tried to make it an opportunity to learn and grow, to become a better person as well as a better student and athlete."
A graduate of the U of W Collegiate, Nikolic is already in a leadership role on the team, thanks to her athletic ability and upbeat personality.
"Ozana understands about being part of a team," Scott said. "Her life is part of a team."
Nikolic is the eldest of Marko and Zeljana Nikolic's six daughters. Her five sisters are aged 6, 8, 11, 13 and 17.
"I have my own volleyball team at home," Nikolic said, laughing.
While her five siblings were born in Canada, Nikolic was born in Croatia. Her parents, one Serbian and one Croatian, left the former Yugoslavia to escape the Bosnian War. Nikolic was 15 months old when the family moved to Canada in 1995.
Hers is a close-knit family, which was why Nikolic's hectic schedule of school and volleyball at first seemed too much. But after sitting out her Grade 10 year, she returned the following year.
"She played so well, my husband and I looked at each other and said, 'Nothing is going to stop her,' " said Ozana's mom Zeljana, noting Nikolic developed as a player despite never attending development camps for financial and family reasons. "Our focus is really on our family time and not to be that ambitious unless there is really such a gift as Ozana has. She has talent, which in a way, scared us. What is going to happen with our little child? But we are very proud of her and very happy. We are very faithful and it is clearly a gift from God."
As the Wesmen play this weekend in Regina against the Cougars, Nikolic is second in the conference in kills per set with 4.15 behind Manitoba's Rachel Cockrell (4.42) and second in points per set with 4.62, also behind Cockrell (4.82).
"Oz had a chance to come in last year and play and flourish with a more experienced team. This year, she's taking on more responsibility, she wants more responsibility and she's capable of handling it," Scott said. "Ozana has a confidence about her but at the same time, she loves being part of a team and the kinship of the team. She's comfortable having fun and having support around her but being a leader at the same time."
Nikolic said there's parallels between being part of a big family and part of a team.
"You learn that to win as a team, you have to work as a group, accept each other's faults and differences and work with that as well," she said. "Learn that losing is part of life and the only way to get through it and grow from it is to stick together as a team."
Bisons women's hockey: Manitoba Bisons vs. UBC Thunderbirds, Max Bell Arena, 7 p.m.
ON THE ROAD
Bisons men's hockey: at UBC, today and Saturday
Wesmen women's and men's volleyball: at Regina, today and Saturday
Bisons women's and men's volleyball: at UBC Okanagan, today and Saturday
Bisons women's and men's basketball: at Regina, Saturday and Sunday
Wesmen women's and men's basketball: at Brandon, Saturday.