MEET THE MAVS

ALWAYS A MAVERICK

By Elena Pilakouta

MEET THE MAVS

This Kidwell-sponsored content series highlights the unique stories of UNO student-athletes that have built a special connection to our city and community.

MEET THE MAVS

This Kidwell-sponsored content series highlights the unique stories of UNO student-athletes that have built a special connection to our city and community.

This series is brought to you by United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

There was a time when I couldn’t stand the sight of a basketball.

I started playing around the age of eight, and especially in those early days, I used to cry before every practice.

I initially began playing basketball because my older brother did. I’ve also always been tall, so being on the hardwood seemed like a natural fit for me.

After I made progress and kept improving on the court, my loathe for basketball quickly turned into a passion.

That passion has created more experiences and memories than I ever could have imagined.

I recently completed my fifth and final season playing basketball for UNO.

I’m from a small island country called Cyprus, so coming to America to play basketball for a DI university has been nothing short of life-changing.

Despite the opportunity to continue my playing career and earn an education in America, there were plenty of challenges along the way.

But I wouldn’t change my journey for anything in the world.

Omaha has become my second home for the past five years, and while it’s the last place I thought I’d end up living when I was a little girl, it’s where I was meant to be.

A risky commitment

Being born and raised in Cyprus, it should probably come as no surprise that I’d never heard of Omaha or Nebraska.

So when UNO made contact and began to recruit me, I had to do my homework on the city, state, and university as a whole.

Looking back on it now, I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t do as much homework as I probably should have in deciding if UNO would be the right fit for me.

When they offered me a scholarship for their women’s basketball team, I accepted without even taking a visit.

I enjoyed talking with the coaches on video calls and the plans they had for me on the court, and my heart was set on UNO.

I didn’t know how risky it was at the time to commit to a university and program without even visiting the campus, but truthfully, I was naive to the recruiting process.

I didn’t know any better.

I’m just glad it all worked out, as I’m still here five years later and have enjoyed every second of my time as a Mav.

Support through adversity

My English has improved tremendously the more I’ve practiced and gotten used to the language. But in my first few years, as I was learning the language, it was an extremely stressful time for me.

Truthfully, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get through it without the support of so many people. There are too many to name, but the athletic department as a whole has been unbelievably helpful to me in my five years here.

If I had any questions or required resources to help me succeed, they were there to make sure I had everything I needed.

That’s why when I dealt with more adversity during 2020 – with Covid and a new coaching staff coming in – I never even considered transferring or looking at other universities.

No matter what, I knew I had the backing of the university and community.

As Covid shut everything down, I was 7,000 miles away back home in Cyprus when the new coaching staff came in. It wasn’t ideal, but rather than be discouraged by the situation, I was anxious to get back to Omaha to meet the staff and be with my team.

It was a lot to deal with at one time, but I knew if I could just get back to Omaha – which I was able to do in July of that year – I’d have the support of the university and my team, and everything would fall into place.

Throughout my entire five years, and especially the hardships I faced in my first few seasons, the support of the university and Omaha community has never wavered.

More than anything, that’s what’s made my time at UNO so impactful and special.

Truthfully, I don't think I would've been able to get through it without the support of so many people. There are too many to name, but the athletic department as a whole has been unbelievably helpful to me in my five years here.

A shocking reunion

As I said before, Omaha has undoubtedly become my second home, but there’s still no place like home, obviously.

In my five years in Omaha, that feeling of being homesick has never really gotten easier.

It’s just become my new normal with each passing year of not being home.

But on February 23rd, my worlds collided.

It was the week of Senior Day.

Just a few more days before my last home game in front of the UNO crowd.

And out of nowhere — at the beginning of practice — my parents stood right behind me.

You can probably imagine the shock on my face.

They had never seen me play in the United States, nor had they ever been to the US before, so it absolutely floored me when they showed up at practice.

To have my family here and meet my Omaha family was surreal in so many different ways. I loved having them in the arena to watch me play, but I also loved showing them around the city and community.

Despite the frigid February temperatures, their trip to Omaha let them see first-hand how much this city and university have meant to me these past five years.

As I reflect on my college career now, no doubt, this was one of my favorite moments.

Saving the best for last

Last year, when I decided to come back for my fifth year, I felt like I had more to give. In all honesty, I felt like we had more to give as a team, too.

And looking back, I’m so glad I did, as it turned out to be my favorite one.

Not only did we more than double our win total, but we made it to the Summit League Championship against South Dakota State.

Playing my final game at UNO for a championship is exactly what I envisioned when I set out to leave Omaha a better place.

From a personal perspective, it wasn’t an easy five years. There were a series of many ups and downs along the way.

But what made this season so rewarding was seeing all the progress and hard work I put in through the years pay off.

I’m told I’ve played more games than any player in school history in the DI era, in addition to being on an exclusive list of players to have scored 1,000 points and collected 500 rebounds.

I’m proud of these accomplishments, but it brings me far greater joy to know I was able to make an impact on a city and university that gave so much to me.

As I continue on my basketball journey this summer with the Cyprus National Team, and later pursue a professional career in Europe, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Omaha that I’ll carry with me forever.

Thanks to a community, university, and coaches and teammates that welcomed me with open arms and relentless support.

I’ll never forget the influence Omaha had on my life.

I’ll always be a Maverick.