NASHVILLE --- From a single tryout as a fourth grader in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to earning a spot on the All-Army Volleyball team, former Tennessee State Tiger Ileanushka “Ile” Maldonado’s journey with volleyball has taken her to places only few dream.
It all began on an afternoon when a professor asked Maldonado to try out for the volleyball team. After persuading her mother, who was at first, unwilling, Maldonado had found her future – one that would take her many places.
A seven-time MVP, Maldonado enjoyed a decorated career under Coach Nelson Villanueva at the C.I.E.M Private School in Carolina, Puerto Rico. With dreams of becoming a student-athlete in the states, and her successes in secondary school celebrated with a retired jersey, Maldonado made her way to Polk State College in Winter Haven, Fla.
She walked on the court as an Eagle, competed, and made history. As a freshman, Maldonado earned a starting nod at libero and played in all 37 matches. She led the Eagles in digs per set, and placed her name in the record books with a match-high 35 digs against the neighboring Clearwater Christian College. Leading the team to its best record in school history, the Suncoast Conference named her to the All-Conference First Team. Maldonado had no place to go but up.
Tennessee State was up. Maldonado moved from Florida to Nashville to join the Big Blue Family, and in true Ile fashion, Maldonado became a force for the Tigers. She played in all 28 matches her incoming year, and 30 as a senior. She averaged 3.635 digs per set, and finished her undergrad career in blue and white with 764 digs, 174 assists and 42 aces. On and off the court, Maldonado left her influence.
TSU’s current head coach, Donika Sutton, joined the Tiger volleyball program the same time as Maldonado, but as assistant coach.
“Coach D was my favorite. She invited me into her family,” exclaimed Maldonado.
“It was a pleasure coaching Ile in her time here at TSU,” said Sutton. “A two year starting libero, Ile was ambitious, determined and able to persevere through any obstacle that stood in her way. A true student-athlete, excelling in the classroom and on the court, I am very proud of all of her success.”
After walking across the stage in Hale Stadium and receiving her degree in athletic training, Maldonado headed back to Puerto Rico to play professionally.
“It was a big thing to realize that dream," said Maldonado. "That was a main goal to play professionally internationally. After the second year, I decided that I wanted a change. Volleyball in Puerto Rico isn’t all year, it’s three to four months, and it wasn’t good economically. So, I had to make a decision.”
In May of 2016, a year after graduating from Tennessee State, Maldonado left the pro circuit and joined the army.
“I started looking at the military in college. When you’re younger, you think, ‘Oh! I want to join the army,’ but in the end, I wanted to be financially stable and help my family," explained Maldonado.
It had only been a year since joining the army when Maldonado jumped on another opportunity to play her beloved sport, as she was invited to play for the All-Army volleyball team. From Puerto Rico, to Florida, to Tennessee, to Fort Drum in New York and now to Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Little did she know, she was not the only Tiger on the team.
Kamille King, the libero from TSU’s championship volleyball team, and former All-Army libero had been promoted to coach.
“I didn’t know she was my coach until she picked me up," said Maldonado. "I heard of her and that she was really good, and I thought I was going to be competing for a position, but I realized she was a coach.”
“I didn’t know anybody because [my teammates] are from everywhere. It was fun, but she made me feel comfortable. She gave me confidence because I knew she was good, and I knew we came from the same background.”
“She contacted me when she found out she was working with Kamille, and was exited to know she would have another Tiger close by as she embarked on this new journey,” said Sutton. “We with Tiger volleyball will be cheering them both on! Go Big Blue!”
Maldonado is currently competing to play on the All-Military team that will compete in the International Military Sports Council’s 19th Women’s Championship in Edmonton, Canada.