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May 27, 2005
With 15 pro-level players active in European leagues, Puerto Rico's volleyball program is basking in one of its finest moments. It's been 20 years since local ambassadors of the sport such as Ricky Amon (UCLA), Javier Gaspar (Penn State) and Jose "Keno" Gandara (UC Santa Barbara) broke ground by testing the waters at both the NCAA and European league levels. Since then, the popularity of men's volleyball on the island has continued to grow -- not quite at the pace of basketball and baseball, but most certainly in a close third.
This 2005 season, Puerto Rico's Superior Volleyball League has attracted not just the top local talent, but also some impressive foreign players.
"Because last year was an Olympic year, the national teams of the other countries retained their players to train during the summer, so we didn't have as many foreign players joining us," said Alan Obrador, coach of the Corozal Plataneros. "This year, we have some of the best players in the world here."
While other Puerto Rican sports leagues cling to the xenophobic notion that foreign players stunt the growth of the island's own talent, the Superior Volleyball League (LVS by its Spanish acronym) embraces foreign talent as a gateway to improvement.
"Ours is the only summer league in the world, so a lot of the foreign players see Puerto Rico as a chance to vacation and still play volleyball," said Humberto Pagan, press director for both the Puerto Rico Volleyball Federation as well as NORCECA, the North and Central American and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation. "Those foreign players help our own players bump up their level of play. They also help the European leagues recruit our talent by putting in a good word."
Argentina's Marcos Milinkovic, one of the world's top players, heads the list of 20 foreign players this summer in the 10-team league. By LVS rules, each of the 10 teams is entitled to two foreign players. Milinkovic is seeing action with Corozal, along with Brazil's Romulo Batista. Adjuntas has added Gerardo Ivan Contreras (Mexico) and Dominican Juan Manuel Caceres while Ponce has Cuban Yasser Romero on the team and is in the process of contracting a second player after Cuban Leonel Marshall was not given a release from his Italian League team to see action in Puerto Rico.
Lares, eligible for three foreign players by virtue of not closing an agreement with their top level center blocker, and Puerto Rico team member, Rene Esteves (Ohio State) this season, currently has Venezuela's Jose Matheus and Brazil's Thiago de Souza on the roster. The team is still waiting for a Portuguese player, Luis Carvalho.
San Sebastian's talent includes Brook Billings, of the U.S. national team, and Portugal's Manuel da Silva. Brazilians Carlos Moreno and Pedro Azenha reinforce the Bayamon squad while compatriots Leonardo Rodrigues and Paulino Dirceu have lent their talent to Caguas. San Juan added Belgium's Wout Wijsmans and is in the hunt for a second player after U.S. national team player Riley Salmon was sidelined with a wrist injury. Carolina counts with Argentina's Jorge Elgueta and Clayton Stanley, of the United States. The defending champion Naranjito Changos will soon add Cuban Maikel Cardona and Canadian Terry Martin to their ranks.
"Our players see the foreign talent first-hand and it improves our play," said Obrador, who added that the bar has been raised so much higher this season that its forced the referees to step up their officiating. "A lot of them had never seen such hard-hitting players and had to make adjustments. Play this season is very physical and the talent is spread out evenly so there is no clear favorite. Of course, anyone who wants to win the championship has to go through [defending champs] Naranjito."
Although the roster of foreign talent is impressive, it has by no means relegated the local talent to the bench.
Hector "Picky" Soto returned to action this week with his home team, the San Juan Playeros. Soto is fresh from helping his Italian league club, Terra Sarda Cagliari to victory in the A-2 series final and bumping them up to A-1 for next season. Soto wasn't the only Puerto Rican star in Europe this season. Victor Rivera, of Naranjito, Jose Rivera, of San Sebastian saw action in Poland, while Jorge Alifonso, of Corozal; Malcom Nieves, of Carolina; Alexis Matias, of Lares; Angel Ruiz, of Corozal; Arcangel Ruiz, of San Juan; Gregory Berrios, of Naranjito; Fernan Morales and Luis "Tito" Rodriguez, of Caguas all played in the Spanish League. Carlos Luis Lopez, of San Sebastian, was active in France's Division II while Joaquin Acosta, of San Juan, played in Italy and Corozal setter Jose Quinones helped his Swiss team to its league championship.
Despite the dearth of local talent, Puerto Rico has miles to go before it fields an Olympic team to rival Americas powerhouses like Argentina, Brazil and the United States.
"Puerto Rico still lacks the national team concept, although that is changing," said Obrador, who added that most other countries stay competitive in volleyball by calling their international selections home for obligatory summer practices. "Other countries spend two to three months practicing together."
Pagan said the LVS's own calendar makes Olympic team practice virtually impossible.
"This summer we have an Americas qualifier for the World Championships next year right here in Caguas," said Pagan. "Our team will only have 10 days to practice."
Six countries from the Americas, including the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and one other Caribbean country to be named this month, will compete Aug. 20-29 in Caguas for two spots at the 2006 Worlds in Japan. Puerto Rico's team will first practice together Aug. 8 before heading south for tune up games versus Brazil and several other countries.
"Having our league in the summer works against us in terms of national team practice, but the other factor is financial," said Pagan. "Other countries devote millions of dollars to their volleyball program. We don't."
Gabrielle Paese is a sports reporter in San Juan. She was the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at email@example.com.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.