Karina Puikkonen, Sister of an All-American Finn

(Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Karina Puikkonen has always been content to set the volleyball underneath the spotlight of her three-time All-American sister.

Within her is found an athletic prowess that is rooted by her sister Nina's example and has flourished through her determination to excel at whatever she attempts.

As a six-foot junior on the women's volleyball team and one of the team's most complete and seasoned players, Karina is setting up to release herself from the shadow of her sister, who was invited to play for the U.S. National Volleyball Team after graduation.

"I think people need to realize that Karina is not just a support-type player; she's a very accomplished player herself, and the team's result for the last two years have relied on her ability to perform in her position," said BYU Director of Women's Athletics and longtime Cougar volleyball coach Elaine Michaelis.

"As a setter, she's the quarterback of the team and has run the offense. She's been an outstanding blocker for us, and just a good, solid performer all the way around. Her contribution has been a major factor in our success. People look at her as being a sister, but Nina wouldn't be what she is if it weren't for Karina."

As an All-Mountain West Conference team member for two consecutive seasons and having ranked second in the conference in assists both years, Karina's accolades have led to opportunities for BYU's hitters to be successful by the way she has used her natural talent to run the offensive side of the ball.

A complete player, Karina is also a strong blocker at the net and solid defender on the back row. With her help, BYU has annually finished among the nation's top blocking teams.

Year after year, Karina has proven to be one of the most elite volleyball players in the Mountain West Conference. But volleyball hasn't always come easy for the young Finnish from Murray, Utah.

When her parents Veikko and Sirkka came from Finland to the United States, they were unaccustomed to provide involvement for Nina and Karina in any organized sports, so it was necessary for the girls to work harder to be able to perform with other athletes their own age.

"Starting volleyball later in my life, I've just always tried to be a hard worker because I felt like I've had so much to regain when everybody has started ahead of me," Karina said. "It's definitely helped me to become more of a disciplined person."

Karina's claim to being a setter might be credited to numerous practices at her local church gym with her older sister.

Nina would take Karina along to her practices at the gym to set the volleyball while she worked on her hits.

"I think Karina was always watching Nina's improvement with the sport, and thought, 'I can do it too'," Veikko said. "When she got better, she got more confident."

However, that confidence did not come until after her freshman year of high school when she tried out for the varsity volleyball team.

She checked out of the tryouts early, feeling mediocre, and later volunteered as a team manager.

Gaining more confidence as she watched the team practice that year, Karina again tried out the following season and consequently started as a sophomore on the varsity team.

That year ignited what would become the start of an inexhaustible volleyball career with the opportunity for Karina to play with Nina for the first time.

"They fed on each other on the court and helped each other," Veikko said. "There's no question that they supported each other all of the time. Nina wouldn't have been the type of player without Karina and vice versa."

Last season, together they helped lead the Cougars to a No. 22 final ranking with a 20-9 overall record.

"Her attitude helps you as a player; she never gets on you; she's a selfless player; she says 'what can I do to make you better', and that's how it's always been. That really makes it nice that she can take that end of the load herself, and I think that she's a little hesitant for this year because she's never had to be in the spotlight," Nina said.

However, senior right-side hitter Sunny Mahe feels that despite the overwhelming presence of her sister, Karina has always been one to shine.

"I think most people probably don't realize that Karina has been in the spotlight all along," Mahe said. "She started as a redshirt freshman, and she did great; she had one of our leading attack percentages. I don't think it will be as big of a change as maybe people think it might be. She might get a little more publicity for it, but she's always been in the spotlight as far as her stats and her performance on the court."

And without the assistance of the former freshman All-American and three-time all-conference Mahe, who will redshirt this season while expecting her first child, Karina will have a major leadership responsibility on this year's squad.

"I think most setters don't get recognition because the hitter is the glorified player on the team," said Michaelis, who retired in May ranked No. 2 in all-time Division I wins with an 887-225-5 record. "It takes a special person, like Karina, who can accept that role and not receive the recognition that her teammates receive.

"She is a successful student, and in anything she does in her life, she is successful because she has a great work ethic. I know Karina's up to any challenge that she's given. She'll make the most of whatever opportunities she has and she'll put the team first."

The past would prove that Karina has been a key contributor to her sister's success, which may reap benefits for her as she now is expected to carry a large load on a young and talented team.

"I think Karina's main strength would be that she is more of a leader on the court just by her great example because she works harder than most everyone on the team," senior defense specialist Michelle Mahaffey said. "She puts in so much effort and cares so much about her performance. It's a good example for the rest of us."

As Karina has had a career of dominating success and a desire to do her best, she will strive to continue the program's 28 consecutive seasons of 20 wins or more.

The 2002 Cougars will take on a challenging schedule, which features some of the toughest perennial powerhouses in the nation.

Next week's Mizuno Classic opens the Cougars' home season and features some great volleyball teams. BYU hosts preseason No. 3 USC Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Smith Fieldhouse to begin the tournament. After Friday matches against Oral Roberts at noon and Wake Forest at 4 p.m., BYU entertains No. 7 Florida Saturday evening at 7 p.m.

Not including potential 2002 MWC tournament contests, BYU will play a minimum of 17 matches against teams that qualified for last year's NCAA tournament, compared to the scheduled 12 matches against NCAA teams in 2001.

While a strong schedule should draw fans to the Smith Fieldhouse this year, Puikkonen still hopes they will pay more attention to her team than to herself.

"I really don't like the spotlight," Karina said. "Even though I play in front of people, I don't see the people when I play. So when I get in situations where I know people are looking at me or watching what I do, it makes me nervous, because I've never been a spotlight-type person.

"This season will be a time for me to break away from what I'm comfortable with and used to, and really jump out and try something new. Nina has taught me all that she knows through example, so I think I just have to go with that and try to be the best that I can be."

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