Story written by Michael Jorgenson, UCSB Athletics Assistant Director, Communications
There are few things in the world of sports, if any, that can truly be described as being "perfect."
There's the "perfect game," where a pitcher shuts out an opposing team without allowing a single batter on base. There are "perfect scores," as in gymnastics, ice skating, or even dunk contests, where a multitude of factors may be considered before a group of judges awards the highest score possible. And, there's the "perfect season," where a team goes undefeated (and tie-less, for that matter) from game one all the way through the year's final whistle.
The pursuit of perfection – elusive and subjective as it may be – is what drives many of the most fiery competitors to be great. These are the kinds of people who will do anything not to lose; those who fear the failure of defeat above all else; and those who, even while experiencing victory, can't help but to focus only on the most microscopic faults in their success.
Longtime fans of the UC Santa Barbara women's volleyball program have been fortunate to bear witness to athletes of this rare mold in the past. "Legend of the Dome" Roberta Gehlke was one such competitor, devastating her opponents throughout the late 1990s en route to three consecutive All-American selections and a handful of seemingly unmatchable program records. And there was Leah Sully, a player who, in 2013, concluded one of the most productive careers UCSB has ever seen.
In more recent years though, there has not been a leader more crucial to, nor as embodying of the Gauchos' fighting spirit than the team's current starting libero, senior Emilia Petrachi.
"First impression: she's very competitive," said junior middle blocker Rowan Ennis, one of Petrachi's closest teammates over the past two and a half seasons. "Just fiery. She hates to lose, and we hear it if we lose. That really pushes every one of us to be better."
Originally from her small hometown of Modena, a city located in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, Petrachi began playing volleyball at the young age of five. Since she can remember, she has closely followed in the footsteps of her older sister, Benedetta, who also excelled in volleyball at a young age and would go on to become a successful doctor. Due to this sibling rivalry, the early signs of Emi's combative nature weren't exactly hard to miss.
"Everything that [Benedetta] did, I wanted to do it better. I'm competitive, and she's not – she didn't care at all. But I wanted to be better, so I became really, really obsessed with volleyball," the five-years younger Petrachi said. "My sister is such a great example. She used to do everything well. I knew that she made my parents happy, so I knew that I wanted to compete with her, and that's just who I am. I need to win, otherwise, I'm in a bad mood all day."
While other children her age were "playing" in a different sense of the word, Petrachi spent her days practicing volleyball at the park with her dad. She would then go home and do extra reps on her own in the backyard. "No one does that when you're five," she recalls with a smile.
Petrachi's unrelenting competitiveness and immense natural talent over a wide range of skill sets would soon manifest into lofty, self-imposed standards. She consistently set and re-set her bar of excellence to accomplish new goals, whether it was winning first place in the Certamen Carolinum – a translation competition which tests students on their ability to translate Ancient Greek and Latin – always having the best grades in her class, or continuing to rise the ranks of Italian club volleyball. There was never a time when Petrachi wasn't reaching for the stars.
"I always wanted to be perfect," she said. "And I don't like it easy."
Fast forward to 2015, and Petrachi would find herself in a seemingly perfect situation playing for UC Santa Barbara, a program in need of a dynamic libero that was just one year removed from a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
She didn't hesitate to make an immense impact on the team, bursting onto the scene with an incredible 30-dig performance at Pepperdine in just her third match ever playing at the Division I level. She went on to finish with 423 digs that year – more than double what any other Gaucho had – on her way to an All-Big West Freshman Team selection.
"Emi has a bit of a tenacity about her, to compete and get after things," head coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said. "As a freshman, immediately, her defense just stood out on the court, but she was also a really solid passer. She just had the all-around game that you need out of libero, and she had a confidence and a kind of drive to her."
Lantagne Welch's first season at the helm of the Gauchos was in 2013, coinciding with Leah Sully's final year with the team. In a must-win regular season finale against UC Irvine, UCSB's new head coach would watch Sully set the program's all-time digs record in a 3-1 victory that helped send the Gauchos to the NCAA Tournament. Despite playing outside hitter for much of her career, Sully, essentially the definition of an "all-around" player, would end her illustrious career with 1,742 digs, a mark never before reached in a Gaucho uniform.
As Lantagne Welch and Petrachi head into tonight's 7:00 p.m. home match against Cal State Northridge, they do so while sitting on the edge of history: with just eight more digs, Petrachi will surpass Sully for No. 1 all-time in the UCSB record book.
"Anytime you're talking about taking any kind of record, it just means you've put in the time, the effort and the commitment to the team's goal," Lantagne Welch said. "What's really cool about something like this is that all the hard work and effort is paying off for your team, and that's what's important. It's exciting and it's special and it's happening for a great person."
Albeit an incredible achievement by any stretch of the imagination, those who have been closely following the superbly skilled Italian's career might not be all that surprised to see her reach this milestone. Towards the tail end of a journey defined by an ever-relentless pursuit of the ball on the defensive end, consistently outrageous individual box score totals, and a perfect attendance record which has seen her start in all 101 possible matches since 2015, the question of whether or not she would eventually set the record might have seemed a foregone conclusion to some.
However, as it is in the world of sports, few things in life can ever truly be described as being "perfect." Looking back now, the most stunning part of Petrachi's Gaucho legend may actually have come at the beginning.
In fact, there just as easily could have been no story to tell at all.
"Emi, like most freshmen, struggled in her first year," said Lantagne Welch, speaking not of Petrachi's play on the court, but of her life outside it. "She had to make a huge adjustment to a completely different country with a completely different culture."
It's common for one to find hardships following a move to a new, unfamiliar environment, but the transition from Italy to the sunny beaches of Santa Barbara was especially challenging for Petrachi. No longer living beside her beloved family, nor able to speak with others in her native Italian, she found herself outside of her comfort zone for the first time.
"It was definitely challenging for me to come here," Petrachi said. "I could not speak the language. When you cannot talk, you cannot express your personality. It's hard making friends, it's hard going out and having a social life."
For a person who has always thrived on success over the smallest perceived failures, Petrachi's high standards for perfection – even with something as difficult and noble as learning to speak a second language – began to wear on her. As a result, just as she was getting ready to embark on her journey, she nearly made the decision to quit the team altogether so she could move back home.
"There have been a lot of times, especially at the beginning, where I'm like, 'I cannot do this. I need to go back home. This is too hard, I shot too far,'" Petrachi said. "But, there was always something in myself saying, 'No, you can do it, just don't give up. I know you can do it.'"
After speaking with her head coach and deciding to give her playing career at UCSB another shot, things started to change for Petrachi. Finally taking the self-imposed weights off her shoulders, she found herself more capable of letting the small, insignificant failures go, and was now able to find joy in the little things – like finishing her laundry in time.
"In the home settings, things feel much easier. You don't really need to try that hard. But when you're away, you kind of have to just be okay with the little accomplishments," she said. "After that talk, I just didn't care that much anymore, and I was like, 'Wow, this is actually nice! It can't be this every single day.' If you just let yourself go a little bit, you don't always need to be perfect. Sometimes, you just need to get through the day."
Petrachi was always bound to be a stat sheet-stuffer at libero, but as she continued to conquer her homesickness, she made huge strides in other ways – in areas which didn't necessarily have to do with individual skill. As a junior in 2017, on an injury-ridden team that was without a clear focal point in terms of upperclassman leadership, Petrachi seamlessly stepped into her new role as a vocal leader on the team.
"I felt like I had to do it, because if not me, it's kind of like, who else?" Petrachi said. "I love leading and I really love my team, so [that transition] was easier. Just to kind of take a burden yourself and let people off the hook, because they need that leadership more than you now. Just to show the younger people that they can do it, and even if you fail, it's not the end of the world."
It's a facet of what she brings to the table that does not go unnoticed by her teammates or coaches.
"She's always kind of had a natural tendency to lead us. She's the first one to take control in the locker room after a game, telling us what we need to do better and how to do it," Ennis said. "Every game she picks people up. But she even pulls our team up in grades, in our team GPA. Just to be able to balance all that, I find that astonishing to see. She knows her priorities, she knows what needs to be done, and she does it."
"From the first day she got to Santa Barbara, Emi has worked really hard in so many ways," said Lantagne Welch. "When you think about the adjustment – culturally, the language, coming to a new country and then embracing this program – and the growth that she's had in so many areas, in communication, in execution, passing and defense, her tremendous serving… It's come along so far. I think that hard work and that effort and that drive to push and to will everyone around her is an example of a great competitor and somebody that you want on your team."
Emilia Petrachi's journey at UC Santa Barbara has had its ups-and-downs. Odds are, she probably wouldn't use the word "perfect" to describe it. At least, not by her standards.
But, while perfection might just be some unattainable thing competitors seek to claim at the finish line of a never-ending home stretch, in the end, reaching perfection is never really the ultimate goal. That's because success cannot be defined without the potential for failure, and the joys of winning are never accompanied without the despair of someone else's defeat. And because nobody is ever truly perfect.
In the end, it's about the journey. The chase to become the best you can be. To experience the happiness that comes from being able to pursue your passion. To take a look around, breathe it all in, and appreciate the people and the experiences that have brought you to a moment of pure, genuine reflection. That's what really matters to a true competitor.
So, while she will always choose to concern herself moreso with team success than with individual accomplishments, tonight, Petrachi and her team will have the opportunity to celebrate something truly special: a milestone moment symbolic of the journey of a fiery five-year old practicing digs by herself in the backyards of Italy, all the way to the top of the UCSB record book.
Isn't that just, kind of… perfect?