‘They miss us, but they’re proud’: The journey from Turkey to Division I starters


Peyton McKenzie

Damla Gunes leads Quinnipiac with 568 assists while Yagmur is third on the team with 180 digs.

It’s common to say that a team is like a family. Whether you are on the field, ice or court, you are surrounded by the people who have your back no matter what. A team is a family in every sense, except maybe blood relation. 

Unless, of course, you are fortunate enough to share your passion with your twin. 

That is the case for Quinnipiac volleyball’s freshmen hitter and setter Yagmur and Damla Gunes. 

The Turkey natives came to Hamden three months ago from their hometown of Bursa, and in that short amount of time have already managed to make a name for themselves. Despite being freshmen, they both made the team’s starting lineup, breaking double-digit assists and digs more often than not. 

Even though the sisters used to be swimmers as kids, both knew their passions were located elsewhere. 

“We have a big cousin; she is like a sister to us.” Yagmur said, referring to their cousin, Esen Kiran. “She was playing volleyball at that time and we grew up playing together in the garden.” 

“The first time I watched volleyball I was five, six, maybe smaller.” Damla said. “I looked at it and I went, ‘I’m going to play that sport.’” 

The twin sisters were approached by head coach Kyle Robinson in November 2021, and had fully committed to the Bobcats by the following January, choosing Quinnipiac over several other options. 

“When we talked to coach Kyle we really liked this place better, we really liked his coaching,” Yagmur said. “And we talked to the girls on the team, and they were more welcoming than the others.” 

The sisters moved six time zones away from their home, achieving their goal of studying abroad, a dream they have been chasing through high school. 

By coming to America, the Gunes’ also were able to vicariously live out the dreams of their father, Murat, who had played basketball during his athletic career. 

“My dad always said to us, ‘Go do the thing that I wasn’t able to do,’” Damla said. “The America thing was on our mind, but my dad pushed for it.” 

Adjusting to life in the United States has presented challenges for the pair, which made becoming a part of the team a challenge in and of itself. 

“We were kind of shy,” Damla said. “We didn’t know when to talk. We didn’t want to say the wrong things, or if they would understand what we meant.” 

There were also adjustments to be made when it came to the sport specifically. Back in Bursa, Yagmur and Damla’s club season with Nilüfer Belediye SC lasted six to eight months. Despite the NCAA season being significantly shorter, they felt a difference. 

“The schedule we’re on right now, it’s busy,” Yagmur said. “It doesn’t feel like nothing (compared to the club team schedule).” 

The cultural differences in volleyball between the two countries have also been a point of emphasis for the sisters as the season has gone on.

Quinnipiac volleyball is 6-7 in MAAC play and are currently
on a four-game winning streak. (Peyton McKenzie)

During Quinnipiac’s five-set loss to Marist on Oct. 5, Damla faced those differences head-on, resulting in her passionate playstyle showing out in spades. 

“I personally love competition, but I do not love when somebody just yells in my face,” Damla said after the match. “In volleyball, we have a net so that you don’t contact people. You turn your back and cheer … and sometimes they were cheering at us. So I was like, ‘OK, if you’re gonna play like that, I’m gonna play like that.’” 

Despite being twins, one would have a hard time telling telling them apart just from the first glance. Not only are they fraternal, but their demeanors differ both on court and off. While Yagmur tends to be more reserved and calm, Damla is loud and outspoken. It’s a dynamic the sisters shared their whole lives, and one that ties into their game play. 

“Back home, coaches always used to tell other setters to be louder,” Damla said. “I was always loud, but I love the way I am, because as a setter, I lead a team in a way.” 

While Yagmur may be quieter, her competitive fire is evident regardless. 

“Me being quiet on the court does not mean I don’t get emotional,” Yagmur said. “I like to watch the game and be concentrated on the opponents.” 

It was their personalities that helped them stand out on a Quinnipiac volleyball squad that also boasts four other freshman recruits. And from the beginning, those personalities made an impact on those around them, especially Damla’s. 

“I believe at some point, (Damla)’s going to be the president of the world,” Robinson said on Sept. 30. “She’s got great confidence, really great thoughts about making everything better, not just volleyball, but the world and in life.”

Robinson also touted Yagmur as a prime example for the type of people he looks for during the recruitment process. 

“This is how you build and then maintain a high-level program,” Robinson said. “We can get better athletes sometimes, but if they’re not great people, I don’t want them.” 

It was that impression that led to the sisters earning their way into the starting lineup, sharing the court in Division I volleyball much earlier than either expected. 

“I mean, if I was not injured on my right shoulder, I’m pretty sure I would play more,” Yagmur said. “But I was not expecting that until I came here.” 

“I wanted to play so bad,” Damla said. “But I didn’t expect to play, especially in preseason matches or pre-conference matches. So when coach Kyle gave me my time to play, I was like, ‘OK, now it’s time for me to show up.’” 

As of publication, Damla leads the team in assists with 568 and service aces with 28, while Yagmur is third on the team in digs with 180. 

For a team that has as bright a future as the Bobcats, the Gunes sisters will look to be at the forefront of the program’s succeeding leadership. 

The balance between Yagmur’s quiet confidence and Damla’s fiery competitiveness will be crucial. The players who currently hold that balance, senior hitter Aryanah Diaz, junior middle blocker Lexi Morse and graduate student middle blocker Nicole Legg, will likely all be gone by the end of the 2023 season. 

For any other squad, those losses may be alot to overcome. But for Quinnipiac, the Gunes sisters will be around to make sure their future is stronger than their past. They would give nothing less for their loved ones back in Turkey. 

“They’re really proud,” Damla said. “They watch all our matches even though the time difference is seven hours. They miss us, but they’re proud of us.”