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Caguas Criollas Win 3rd Straight Superior Volleyball League Title

By Gabrielle Paese

April 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

While Puerto Rico is not a world power in the sport, that doesn't stop women's volleyball from being one of the most popular games on the island.

In addition to being the sport more girls in Puerto Rico play, women's volleyball also draws the biggest crowds of any other women's league.

You can credit the game's participatory popularity to well organized volleyball programs in the public and private schools, in addition to neighborhood leagues overseen by the Puerto Rico Volleyball Federation.

The Volleyball Federation, and its Superior Volleyball League, also deserve the credit for the game's growth on the island as a spectator sport.

In fact, thanks to some slick marketing, the women of the Superior Volleyball League (SVL) are as well known in Puerto Rico as the men's Superior Basketball League players.

Aurimar Rodríguez, Aury Cruz, Sheila López, Greichaly Cepero and Soleil Thon -- all NCAA standouts -- get instant recognition from local fans.

No team is better known than the Caguas Criollas, who last week won their third straight league championship under the direction of coach Rafael "Epique" Olazagasti. The Criollas, owned then by Francisco Ochoa and currently by former Caguas mayor Angel O. Berríos, have won six league championships in the past seven years. Their streak was broken up in 1999 by the Toa Baja Llaneras, which were led that season by University of Florida volleyball team star Aury Cruz.

This year, the Criollas had to get past a high-powered Mayaguez Indias team that featured two University of Nebraska star players in Nancy Metcalf and Jenny Kropp. Kropp is the sixth-ranked middle-blocker in the United States while Metcalf, a rightside hitter, is a former All-American for the Cornhuskers.

Similar to the men's Superior Basketball League and the winter baseball league, women's volleyball league teams are permitted a limited number of "import" players (read: not Puerto Ricans), usually one per team.

Caguas was led by final series MVP Xiomara Molero and stars Jetzabel del Valle, Alexandra Oquendo, Sandra Gálvez, Vanessa Papaleo, Tatiana Encarnación, Mariani Arroyo, Alba Aponte, Yanira Santiago, Dolly Meléndez and Milliannet Mojica along with rookie Daniela Beltrán and import Barb Bellini.

Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign created SVL and Volleyball Federation president Carlos Beltrán, women's volleyball is one of the few leagues in Puerto Rico that turns a profit. While men's basketball continues its downturn and the winter baseball league suffers from rigor mortis, the fans faithfully turn out for women's volleyball.

Unlike winter baseball, the WSVL actually has a local television contract as well as a healthy list of local sponsors. The women also have calendars, pose in bathing suits and many also enjoy successful modeling careers.

Far from being considered sexist, Beltrán's approach to selling women's volleyball is generally viewed in Puerto Rico as forward-thinking. What Œ70s feminism might have seen as exploitation, today's generation of women view as simply a promotional opportunity.

And while the toned and tanned bodies and short shorts help sell tickets at the stadiums, the truth is the level of play continues to improve year after year.

The Criollas, in particular, must directly attribute some of their success to a high level of physical fitness and the year-round work of strength and conditioning coach Michael Serralta.

As the young women get fitter, their opportunities to play at the NCAA level improve. Eight of the league's players are currently seeing action in NCAA Division I school volleyball programs. Aury Cruz, of the Toa Baja Llaneras, is one of the University of Florida's top players and her Toa Baja teammate, Greichaly Cepero, is a volleyball and basketball star at the University of Nebraska. Soleil Thon, who plays for the Carolina Giants and is the daughter of former major league ballplayer Dickie Thon, was a standout player at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Puerto Rico still has far to go to develop a volleyball team that could be competitive internationally, but if the sport continues to grow in popularity, there's nowhere to go but up.

Women's field hockey poised to make history

While we're on the subject of women's sports, Puerto Rico is poised to make history this fall when the island will compete at the Central American-Caribbean Games for the first time in women's field hockey.

Edwin Mundo, former NPP representative-turned Puerto Rico Field Hockey Federation president, has put together a women's field hockey team to represent the island competitively for the first time ever.

Why field hockey and why now? you might be asking. Good question. While El Salvador is the host country for this November's Central American-Caribbean Games (the CAC Games are an Olympic-style competition for the region), Puerto Rico is going to play host to the CAC Games field hockey events.

Mundo said being the host country was tremendous incentive to put together a quality team.

"I didn't want us to get our butts kicked if we were hosting the tournament," said Mundo, who said he spent three weeks combing NCAA internet sites looking for Puerto Rican women playing field hockey stateside.

Mundo discovered that one of the U.S.'s top U-19 players, Colleen Barbieri, is Puerto Rican. A New York native, Barbieri plays NCAA field hockey for the University of Maryland, the team that finished second at the NCAA Division I level this past season behind Michigan State.

While Barbieri prefers to remain with the U.S. team, Mundo found several other interested players, including his new team captain, Denise Zelenak, head coach at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, Pa. Zelenak was born in Ceiba, Puerto Rico.

Far from being a squad of untested youngsters just learning the sport, the women's field hockey team is expected to be competitive against CAC region powerhouses like Cuba, Mexico and Trinidad-Tobago.

Note to readers: Unless you have neither cable TV nor internet access (in which case you probably aren't reading this), you've already noticed that the major league baseball season is in full swing. If you're not already in a fantasy league, you can follow the Puerto Ricans in the major leagues via their respective teams at

So far, the most alarming news of the season is that Juan "Igor" González is out with a deep bruise in his right thumb, although he's not expected to go on the DL. You can follow his day-to-day progress at


Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the most recent recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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