China (CHN) vs. Türkiye (TUR) women - Final 1-2 #5867390

For several years, the Turkish women’s national team has been viewed as an emerging force in international volleyball.  Fueled by one of the strongest national leagues in the world and backed by passionate fans, the Sultans of the Net turned several corners during the last 20 years, from making their first appearances at the FIVB World Championship, in 2006, and the Olympics, in 2012, to winning a silver medal in the first edition of the Volleyball Nations League, in 2018.

  • The Volleyball Nations League 2023 matches are available on demand on VBTV

The quality of the talent present in the Turkish squad has been undeniable for years, but to some, there was still the feeling that they were still a piece or two away from being capable of challenging the top teams in the world and competing for titles at the highest level.

That has certainly changed since Melissa Vargas, the Most Valuable Player in the Turkish victorious campaign in the VNL 2023, started wearing the team's No. 4 jersey, less than two months ago.

When the 23-year-old Cuban-born opposite became eligible to represent Türkiye earlier this year, after playing in the country with Fenerbahçe for the last five seasons, it was clear that she would be a nice addition to a national team that was looking to give the next step forward.

Not many, however, could predict that she would immediately become the catalyst of the biggest victory in Turkish volleyball history, leading the Sultans of the Net with her MVP performance during the four weeks of VNL competition.

Vargas appeared in 11 matches in the Turkish campaign and scored less than 15 points in just one of them. Her importance was even greater during the Finals, when she tallied 65 points across three elimination duels and 26 in the gold medal match against China.

Besides having a key scoring role with the team, the athletic opposite also contributed to the team’s success off the court, lightening the mood with her young spirit, even if she was a new face on the team.

“With Vargas, she’s not only a great player, but also a great person,” said Turkish captain Eda Erdem, who also plays with her at Fenerbahçe. “She changed the team’s mood and is an incredible fighter on the court. We love her, we embraced her from the first day and showed her that she’s one of us.”

Even if the possibility of having a player of Vargas’ caliber is certainly exciting, her fit inside the court with the Sultans of the Net wasn’t always very clear. That’s because the team’s main player over the last few years, Ebrar Karakurt, also plays as an opposite.

That’s when the second key Turkish addition in 2023, head coach Daniele Santarelli, played a big role.

A world champion with Serbia in 2022, the Italian embraced the task of developing the Turkish talent over the next few years and was faced with the challenging mission of finding the best way to utilize Vargas and Karakurt on the team in the few weeks he had to prepare the team ahead of the start of the VNL.

During the Preliminary Phase, he was cautious and played both of them in their original position of opposite, having only one of them on the court at a time. During the Finals, Santarelli revealed his stroke of genius, moving Karakurt to the outside hitter position, where she was the team’s second-best scorer with 35 points and also played a pivotal role in their victory.

China (CHN) vs. Türkiye (TUR) women - Final 1-2 #5867268

Karakurt and Vargas proved to be a good fit together and helped Türkiye win the VNL title

Perhaps more importantly than that, the Italian, who also coached Croatia and has led Italy’s Prosecco Doc Imoco Conegliano to two world titles and seven Lega Volley Femminile victories, inserted in the team the confidence that they could do it.

“It’s been a long journey and I think that this year, with coach Santarelli, he made us believe we could be the champions,” Erdem added. “He helped us grow and remember who we are.”

Now in first place in the FIVB Women’s Volleyball World Rankings, and with Vargas, Karakurt, Santarelli and many more, the future is brighter than ever for Türkiye.

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