One of the goals behind the creation of the upcoming Athletes Unlimited volleyball league was to provide American players an opportunity to play at home.
With considerable excitement revolving around its inaugural season that starts in February and a number of Americans in the fold, the league is prepared to extend the same benefit to several players beyond our borders.
That, at least, is the hope of Athlete Unlimited’s newest addition, Olympian and Dominican Republic star Bethania De La Cruz.
The 33-year-old outside hitter, who spent the majority of her career in European and Asian leagues, believes players from the NORCECA (North and Central Americas and Caribbean) region can massively benefit from the league’s creation by also having an option to continue their professional careers closer to home in a competitive environment.
Currently, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are the only countries in the region to have professional leagues, but most of their national team players end up in Europe and Asian as they look for better contracts.
Earlier this year, Athletes Unlimited signed Brazilian star Sheilla Castro. Adding De La Cruz was another big get for the fledgling league.
“I think this is a massive opportunity. I always wondered why there wasn’t a professional league in the United States,” De La Cruz told VolleyballMag.com in a recent phone interview.
“For this first season the league has a good mix of experienced and young players and with the high level of collegiate volleyball in the United States, it will always be very competitive. We have several young players in my country that could develop a lot if they were in an environment like that and I’m confident Athletes Unlimited will make a positive impact not only in the United States, but in the entire NORCECA region.
“We actually need it.”
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De La Cruz, however, is certainly not in the same category of the up-and-coming Dominican players she mentioned. She’s been one of the best players in the world in the last decade and has established herself as the face of a Dominican Republic national team that found its way into the elite of the sport.
A London 2012 Olympian, she joins the new league after being the MVP of both the 2019 Pan-American Games and last January’s Olympic qualifier in Santo Domingo, which secured another bid for her country in the Tokyo Games. In the last club season, she won both the Russian League and the Russian Cup with Dynamo, being the best server in both tournaments.
Known by her strong offensive game, De La Cruz was signed to be one of the faces of the new league, alongside other international stars such as American outside hitter Jordan Larson, with whom she played in Turkey to win the European Champions League and the Club World Championship for Eczacibasi five years ago, and Brazilian opposite Sheilla, a rival from many battles around the globe.
“I think it’s awesome that the league managed to sign such relevant players right on its first season,” De La Cruz added. “Even after a complicated year, having these players will allow the league to start at full pace and generate a lot of attention from the beginning. I’m really excited to play with and against each of them, especially Jordan since we were teammates in the past and got along really well. I admire her a lot as a player and a person.”
According to De La Cruz, these three players and Puerto Rican Aurea Cruz, another globetrotter Olympian who has featured in six professional leagues overseas, have much more to bring to Athletes Unlimited than high-level volleyball and international eyeballs.
As with any new league, there will certainly be adjustments to be made after the inaugural season and there’s probably no one better to point out what those should be than a group of highly successful women who have seen a lot in several different leagues around the planet.
“From when they first reached out, the league has always looked very professional and well-structured,” the Dominican reflected. “The fact that they were able to put the entire tournament together and sign players during a pandemic says a lot. It’s difficult to imagine what kind of suggestions we could make now, but I’m sure we’re all very invested in the success of the league and we won’t be shy to let them know our opinions when we’re there, seeing it happen.”
Helping the growth of Athletes Unlimited, however, is certainly not De La Cruz’s only goal during her six-week stop in February 2021.
A pillar of the Dominican national team that plans to fight for a medal during the Tokyo Olympics five months later, the outside hitter has decided to pick the offer to play in the United States over the other options she had in order to be in her best possible form during the summer.
“I had never had such a long break in my career and I didn’t know in which conditions I would be when the club season started in Europe and Asia,” she said. “The Olympics are my priority and I decided to take my time and return when I’m ready to play at my best.
“I’m already training with the national team in Santo Domingo and the league will put me in great form for the international season. It will be short, but intense and very demanding and that’s exactly what I need.”