We enjoy featuring Bulldog family tradition stories and this time we have the spotlight on the Iisakka sisters. Kelly (‘03), Greta (‘05), and Eleena (‘11) Iisakka are happy they chose to attend UMD. The Bulldog volleyball team clearly benefited from these three talented and motivated women. Their participation spanned over a decade and their efforts boast a combined four All NSIC awards, one All North Central Conference title, five All Region selections, and three All American honors. But attending UMD was not just about excelling on the court.
“I felt really proud to follow in my sisters’ footsteps since I always looked up to them. They were both extremely driven and excelled in both academics and volleyball,” Eleena reflected.
That sentiment was echoed by both Greta and Kelly. “I wanted to play volleyball for UMD because it was a great program and my sister was on the team,” Greta recalled. Kelly’s favorite part of her volleyball experience “was playing a season with my sister, Greta, when she was a freshman. It was a great experience and really brought us a lot closer in our sisterly bond and friendship. I also felt a sense of pride watching my sisters follow in my footsteps and loved going to games after I graduated to cheer them on!”
Kelly attended tryouts the spring of her freshman year in 1999, made the team, and played for three years. She chose to attend UMD because “it was a great school within the U of M system but with a slightly smaller feel and more personalized experience than the Minneapolis campus.” As a 2003 graduate with a BS in biochemistry and minor in marketing, she now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., where she works in outside sales for Paychex. As a student athlete, she became “more involved in the whole college experience. I really enjoyed being part of a team and having goals in addition to academic goals. It also made me place better focus on efficiency in handling both academics and volleyball.”
Greta was drawn to UMD because it had a strong volleyball program and her sister was on the team. “There was definitely a comfort factor knowing Kelly was on the team and that we could support each other.” Besides receiving a good education and playing the sport she loved at an extremely competitive level, UMD was also where Greta met her future husband, UMD football player, Ted Pelzer (‘07). The Pelzers live in Plymouth, Minn., with their four-month-old daughter, Mia. Greta is a marketing associate at Christensen Group Insurance with hopes of obtaining her master’s degree in the near future.
All three siblings appreciated the demands placed upon them as student athletes and believe they were more goal oriented, organized, and academically successful because of the experience. Eleena, a math major currently living in Minneapolis, is pursuing a master’s degree in biostatistics. Her dream is to conduct medical research on new cancers and diseases, medical treatments, and devices. Being a college athlete helped her improve with multi-tasking and prioritizing. She also believes that being a part of a team helped her develop her teamwork skills, work ethic, and leadership abilities that she now relies on professionally. It also helped having sisters who had gone through similar situations who could give her advice and guidance.
The Iisakka siblings have fond memories off the court as well. Kelly befriended many teammates and athletes in different sports who are still a huge part of her life today. Greta feels that the people she met and became friends with enhanced her experience at UMD. She has good memories of living in the dorms and then moving into the volleyball house next to campus. At the same time, “The teachers in LSBE [Labovitz School of Business and Economics] were all terrific. Tracey Bolen, my academic advisor and professor, was one of my favorites in the department. He was an excellent advisor and also knew a lot about volleyball so it was fun to talk with him. He was a big supporter of our team!”
Eleena enjoyed all her classes and her professors. “I met a lot of nice people along the way and made long-lasting friendships. My fondest memory is sitting in my intro to Art class where I first met my boyfriend of four and a half years. I also love the city of Duluth because even though it’s cold, there is always something fun to do and the scenic views are breathtaking. I could not have chosen a better college to go to or have found a better fit for me.”
The proud parents of the Iisakka sisters are Donna and Jeff Iisakka, from Esko, Minn., who enjoyed their daughters’ involvement with the UMD volleyball program for 12 years. They logged hundreds of miles in the car and thousands of hours of bleacher time watching their daughters play numerous sports as they grew up. “It was quite rewarding to watch them learn, grow, and figure out that working hard, absorbing information from the coaches, and getting along with teammates were all valuable lessons in their life’s journey, “ Jeff said. “UMD athletes are remarkable. We have learned that it takes very special individuals to be able to multi-task with classes, study time, practices, training, travel, and games. And they might slip in some fun time and sleep along the way too. They are special people, and to be able to maintain their high degree of sporting skill and academic excellence is a testament to what human beings are capable of achieving. UMD’s desire to provide a wonderful experience for the students is exceptional.”
Donna shared that all three women were members of the National Honor Society in high school and continued to be honor students at UMD. She also recounted when after the 9-11-2001 World Trade Center disaster, the U of M had to cancel one of their matches. UMD was then invited to play the Gopher squad as a makeup game to complete their season. “This is probably the only time UMD played against a Div. I team and (it was) a thrill for Kelly and Greta.”
Their parents’ support has been greatly appreciated by Kelly, Greta, and Eleena and is summed up by Kelly who said, “Nothing can compare to the pride I felt in having my parents travel to all of my games and support me through both the fabulous and tough times.”
The Bulldogs are currently ranked fourth in the NSIC. Their next home series will be on November 1 when they host the University of Sioux Falls at 7:00 p.m. and on November 2 when they face Southwest Minnesota State at 4:00 p.m. Both matches are in the Romano gym on the UMD campus.