Coach and three players from the island draw strength in the wake of Hurricane Maria
By Carly Buechler
Cal State LA News Service
On Saturday night, the Cal State LA women's volleyball team was on the brink of defeat, but outside hitter Karla Santos remembered why they were playing.
Santos was raised in the seaside city of Manatí in Puerto Rico. Her home where she grew up, about 30 miles from the capital of San Juan, was destroyed when Hurricane Maria tore across the island.
She and her teammates dedicated the match at Cal State Dominguez Hills to Puerto Rico. They wore red and blue ribbons, the colors of the Puerto Rican flag.
“I played for my family and all of Puerto Rico,” Santos said. “I don’t think only of my family, I think of the whole island. I love Puerto Rico.”
Puerto Rican roots run deep on the team. Head Coach Juan Figueroa, outside hitter Alejandra Negron and libero Jeshmarie Suarez are all from the island, which is suffering catastrophic devastation in the wake of one of the most powerful storms to ever strike the U.S. territory.
The Golden Eagles were down two sets to the Toros, and Coach Figueroa gathered his players. They remembered that it was not just another game, and they remembered why they were there. “To play and win. I think that’s the only thing that I can do for my island, to support my island and my family,” said Suarez, who hails from San Juan.
First-year player Santos ignited the comeback with one of the greatest performances in Golden Eagles volleyball history. She recorded a season-high 30 kills and 26 digs. Cal State LA went on to take three straight sets and win the match, remaining undefeated in California Collegiate Athletic Association play. Santos’ performance earned her CCAA Student-Athlete of the Week.
At a time when it was difficult for the players and coach to focus on volleyball, their driving force came from the emotions fueled by the disaster.
Inside the locker room, the players cried and hugged each other.
“I had mixed feelings after the game. I was crying a lot because I was happy,” Santos said. “I had my best game here, but I also thought about my family not being able to watch the game.”
Negron, who is from Bayamón, in a valley about 10 miles from the capital, reflected on the destruction across the island. “It’s really bad. All the trees are down and you can see everything,” she said.
“I feel so bad because I can’t do anything,” Negron added.
She, Santos and Suarez have talked to their families, but the conversations have been brief due to the downed power lines and cell towers.
Figueroa, who is from the San Juan suburb of Levittown, was unable to contact his mother for days. He found out from his father that other family members are safe.
He said the tragedy has brought the team together. Players have rallied around their Puerto Rican teammates as they struggle to cope with the crisis and communicate with their families.
“This is the most united I’ve seen the team. It’s brought the team together,” Figueroa said. “They’re fighting together."
Photo: From left to right, Karla Santos, Jeshmarie Suarez and Alejandra Negron. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)
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