As you wander through the cobblestone streets of old town San Juan lined with pastel colored colonial buildings and Puerto Rican flags proudly waiving from balconies, it’s tempting for a visiting tourist to forget, or ignore, the aftermath of hurricane Maria. It’s easy to get carried away by the lively music, ice-cold frappes (fruit smoothies) and deliciously rich seafood cuisine on offer. Puerto Rico’s sandy white beaches and surrounding teal blue Caribbean Sea have a way of making you feel the presence of paradise.
However if you talk to anyone on the island who lived through the experience, there is no forgetting when the lights went out on September 20, 2017 – the night that Hurricane Maria, a category 5 storm, made direct landfall on Puerto Rico. Winds reaching 175 mph lashed out on the island for over 30 consecutive hours tearing down power lines, ripping apart rooftops and shattering windows in homes, restaurants, churches and commercial office buildings. Maria’s fingerprints are everywhere; among trees with amputated branches, bent sign posts, crushed cars and collapsed rooftops. Bridges were washed away. Power lines were torn and left dangerously dangling. A coastal surge filled homes with several feet of muddy water leaving behind dangerous mold and an eery trail of dark water stains.
When the storm finally receded, virtually the entire island woke to no electricity, cell phone service or internet. Refrigerators no longer kept food edible. Hospitals were unable to provide critical medical services. Diesel fuel quickly became a limited resource making cars and backup generators ineffective. On some parts of the island the power outage lasted for 9 months.
“My friend’s house was gone” reflects Steven Fenosik, a local Puerto Rican volleyball coach and professional agent on the island. “I ate dried food for a month. I did not have electricity for 2 months. You would wait in line at the gas station for 2 hours to get only $20 worth of gas. It was horrible. It changed me. It changed the way I view life.”
It changed the volleyball community on the island too. Puerto Rico has always been a volleyball haven. Prior to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico had very strong professional volleyball leagues called the Liga de Voleibol Superior Femenino (LVSF) for women and the Liga de Voleibol Superior Masculino (LVSM) for men. The women’s league was founded in 1968 and consisted of 9 teams throughout the island.
In 2000 the Puerto Rico Volleyball Federation and the women’s superior league directors opened the gates for non-locals to participate. Since then countless NCAA All-Americans, past and current Olympians have initiated their professional careers in Puerto Rico including Kristee Porter, Kim Glass, Kim Willoughby, Ogonna Nnamani, Erin Moore, Stacy Gordon, Courtney Thompson, Jessica Jones, Shonda Cole, Jordan Larson, Stephanie Niemer, Kelly Murphy, Kristy Jaeckel, Blair Brown, Gina Mancuso, Lauren Cook, Brooke Delano, Tara Mueller, Amanda Benson, Michelle Barsch, Kelsey Robinson, Paige Tapp and Annie Drews.
Puerto Rico’s rich volleyball history doesn’t end there. The volleyball development pipeline in Puerto Rico runs both ways. From a young age many Puerto Rican volleyball players dream of receiving a scholarship to play college ball on the mainland. In fact several top NCAA volleyball team’s include Puerto Rican players.
Top Puerto Rican NCAA women’s players include; Aurimar Rodriguez (Florida), Greichaly Cepero (Nebraska), Aury Cruz (Florida), Noami Santos (Florida), Debora Seilhamer (USC), Daly Santana (Minnesota), Dalianiz Rosado (Minnesota), Pilar Marie Victoriá (Texas / Arkansas), Yarleen Santiago (Arkansas), Ana Sofía Jusino (Arkansas), Raymariely Santos (Arkansas), Jennifer Nogueras (Washington), Paulina Prieto (Penn State / Texas), Shannon Torregrosa (Arizona), Valeria Leon (Ohio State), Sheila Ocasio (UNLV), Natalia Valentin (FIU), Yarimar Rosa (FIU), Dalianliz Rosado (Minnesota) and Yavianliz Rosado (Bradley).
Top Puerto Rican NCAA men’s players include; Jose Gandara (UC Santa Barbara), Javier Gaspar (Penn State), Ramon Hernandez (Penn State), Norman Almodovar (IPFW), Hector “Picky” Soto (IPFW), Luis “Vitito Rivera” (Lewis), Jorge Perez (Penn State), Carlos Ortiz (Penn State), Edgardo Goas (Penn State), Dennis Del Valle (Penn State), Angel Aja (Ohio State), Rene Estevez (Ohio State), Ivan Perez (BYU), Hector Lebron (BYU), Oswal “ozzie” Antonetti (BYU), Dennis Gonzalez (UCLA) and legendary Rick Amon (UCLA).
Unfortunately both the mens and women’s Puerto Rican professional volleyball seasons were canceled in 2018 due to lack of power and severe hurricane damage to gyms and other surrounding infrastructure. In 2019 the league is struggling to start up again with local players only (for now). Lacking sponsorships and facilities, the teams will play in whatever gyms are available for little to no money.
Just as rebounding tourism is critical to Puerto Rico’s full recovery, rebuilding the professional volleyball league in Puerto Rico is vital to the development and future of the sport volleyball in Puerto Rico.
Bradley University, Doane University and the University of Central Florida women’s volleyball teams all took their foreign tours to Puerto Rico in 2018 bringing much needed medical supplies, sports equipment and support to the island. USA Volleyball sent down coloring books and volleyballs collected from their “Leave a Ball Behind” program. Courtney Thompson’s Give It Back Foundation partnered with the Washington Volleyball program to raise significant financial support as well.
All of that has helped. All of it is good. But it is not nearly enough.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved budget falls short of the need by several billion dollars and FEMA has rejected over half of the assistance requests on the island. FEMA money isn’t going to rebuild Puerto Rico’s pro volleyball league, the gyms or the dozens of local club development programs and school teams that have been suspended due to the lack of infrastructure, supplies and critical funding. The volleyball community in Puerto Rico needs corporate sponsorships from volleyball specific companies and financial aid from more volleyball fans and supporters in the mainland.
If you, your volleyball team or your company are interested in becoming a sponsor or making a financial donation to help Puerto Rico’s volleyball community rebuild, please contact us. If you’ve got volleyball specific equipment such as balls, nets or kneepads you’d like to donate to Puerto Rico, then BIP can help coordinate the distribution of supplies through our upcoming volleyball team service trips to Puerto Rico. If you want to make a financial donation to contribute to hurricane rehabilitation and socioeconomic development in Puerto Rico, please visit P.E.C.E.S. website and donate here – https://www.pecesinc.org/. P.E.C.E.S. is a 501(c)(3) entity and donations are fully tax deductible.