April 7, 2003
By Major Scott Nelson, assistant volleyball coach -
Spring Break at USAFA typically finds many cadets taking a well deserved break to thaw out at such traditional hot spots as Cancun, South Padre and Daytona Beach...and a little recreational beach volleyball is likely on the agenda. But the AFA women's volleyball team took it a bit farther south - where the volleyball action is the more serious, highly competitive variety - as they traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 22-29.
The Falcon's working Spring Break was head coach Penny Lucas-White's vision for giving 12 members of the promising squad both a high-level volleyball training experience, as well as an once-in-a-lifetime military and cultural taste of this history-rich Caribbean island and U.S. territory.
Puerto Rico is well known as a sports Mecca and volleyball hot-bed, with volleyball's popularity equal to the island's love of baseball and basketball. Without question, volleyball is highly revered in the beautiful tropical island, which supports lucrative and exciting 10-franchise men's and women's indoor profession leagues.
Despite concerns surrounding the Colorado Blizzard of 2003 and impending Operation Iraqi Freedom, the team made the seven-plus hour, two-leg flight to San Juan, arriving late Saturday night (March 22) and hit the island running with a two and a half hour practice on Sunday in San Juan. This allowed the team to get accustomed to the heavy air, high humidity, heat (and occasional bird-sized mosquitoes), that come with the territory!
Motivation took the form of attending a Women's Superior League match (Puerto Rican pro league) on Monday with the Gigantes de Carolina (Carolina Giants) hosting the Criollas de Caguas (Caguas Creoles). The players witnessed the best in Puerto Rican volleyball players, as well as watching several high-level former NCAA players, including All-American Kristee Porter (UCLA), Elizabeth Fitzgerald (Wisconsin) and Cheryl Weaver (Long Beach State), who are competing in the league. The league playoffs were in full swing during the visit, providing the perfect opportunity for the Falcons to witness some very competitive volleyball.
"I really wanted to expose our cadet-athletes to this level of competition in an area that has such a passion for competitive volleyball." Lucas-White said. "For them to see, train and compete with players that have gone to the next level and represent the USA so well outside the mainland is really an once-in-a-lifetime, priceless motivational experience for our cadets."
After watching Carolina defeat Caguas in front of thousands of screaming fans, the team spent Tuesday touring historic Old San Juan and enjoying the Caribbean sun and surf. The Falcons were back in the gym on Wednesday for a two hour training session with Carolina, followed by a two-set exhibition match against the league's current No. 1 seed. The Falcons rose to the occasion splitting the sets 25-23, 17-25.
"Just being on the court alongside an elite All-American like Kristee Porter, not to mention the extremely talented local players, was an amazing experience," outside hitter C2C Delavane Diaz said. "Competing and training at that level definitely gave us confidence that with dedication and hard work this spring, we will only improve our performance in the Mountain West Conference next fall."
Diaz, whose father Juan is a professional tennis player from Cuba, also served as the team's translator. Assistant coach Maj. Scott Nelson kidded that Delavane was in an unofficial language immersion for the entire week.
"Not only was this an incredible volleyball experience, but also a great cultural one" Nelson said. "The island is steeped in historical significance. It was enlightening to see how Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, passionately maintain their pride and unique cultural heritage. Many from the island are currently serving the United States in the war and so many of them before have sacrificed their lives in our past wars and conflicts. They were all such gracious hosts; it was just a fantastic and unforgettable educational experience."
After an excursion to El Yunque (The Caribbean National Rainforest), the cadets were back in the gym on Thursday traveling south to the interior city of Caguas for another training session with last year's Superior League champion Criollas. The exhibition match that followed provided even more challenge, but the Falcons held their own keeping it competitive before dropping three sets (28-30, 23-30, 21-25.)
"Along with the great experience gained by AFA, we also hoped to give back to these teams by giving them a different look and helping them prepare for their upcoming matches-our way of being good ambassadors and representing USAFA and the USAF to this community," Lucas-White said.
Friday, the University of Puerto Rico hosted the Falcons for their last competitive exhibition match of the trip. Once again the Falcons kept it close but dropped three sets (24-26, 22-25, 23-25.)
"Of course, we're always disappointed when we don't come out on top" Lucas-White said. "However, we were able to work on so many aspects of the game in an unfamiliar and highly competitive environment."
Perhaps most importantly, the Falcons learned the lesson of how to handle outside distractions and still play with fire and passion every time one steps out on the court.
"Coach is always telling us to find a way or make one" said team captain C2C Kristin Huitt. "That was reinforced more than ever on this trip and I can state, without a doubt, that we are totally committed as a team to that concept after this incredible experience."
The team attended one final professional match Friday night with Carolina hosting Corozal. Watching the very pro athletes they competed against just a few days prior play an exciting four-set match again in front of live TV and an amazingly passionate crowd brought the whole experience together for the Falcons. The entire team confirmed that this was an incredibly productive experience that could prove to be the difference next fall.