Every year, hundreds of American players leave the country to play professional volleyball overseas. According to USA Volleyball, 257 female players are registered to compete in 31 different countries during the 2019-2020 season and four of them will do that in Brazil.
Opposite Nicole Fawcett, outside hitters Deja McClendon and Sarah Wilhite and middle-blocker Claire Felix are all set to compete in the Brazilian Superliga, which starts Tuesday night and continues the tradition of great American players in the South American country, which includes names as setter Carli Lloyd, opposite Destinee Hooker, outside hitter Logan Tom, middle-blocker Danielle Scott-Arruda and libero Stacy Sykora.
The USA has the most international players in the women’s 2019-2020 edition of the Superliga — among the 11 foreigners there also athletes from Azerbaijan, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Serbia and Venezuela. Middle-blocker Hannah Tapp was originally set to play with Brazilian club Flamengo but the deal was called off and she headed to Japan instead.
The 32-year-old Fawcett, who was a member of the USA national team between 2009 and 2016, is the only one of the four with Brazilian experience. She is returning for her fourth season in Brazil after winning 2017-2018 Superliga with her current club, Dentil/Praia Clube.
“Anytime you can win a championship in a country where volleyball is huge and very competitive it’s always an amazing moment because of the amount of work that was put in to get there,” the two-time national champion with Penn State said. “What I have loved about playing here is knowing that I have gotten better as a player and person, and that it will continue for this year as well. Being able to play at a high level and meeting incredibly friendly people has made my experience in Brazil one of a kind.”
The team, which is coached by Brazil’s national-team assistant coach Paulo Coco, is considered one of the favorites to claim the national title as it counts with international stars such as the Dominican Republic’s outside hitter Brayelin Martínez, Brazil’s national team players Fernanda Garay and Ana Carolina Silva and veteran middle-blocker Walewska Oliveira.
“Obviously the end goal is to win everything, but I think it’s important to just focus on the moment we are in to get us where we want to be,” Fawcett added. “I think this team that we have this year is going to do some really great things, one of those I hope to be another championship.”
In the finals of both tournaments, Fawcett met another two-time national champion star out of Penn State, the 27-year-old outside hitter McClendon. She is set to make her debut in the country with reigning Brazilian champions Itambé Minas, the same team the opposite played for in her first stint in the country, in the 2010-2011 season.
McClendon, who arrives in Brazil after playing professionally in Azerbaijan, Poland and Italy, walks in with a big task in hand, as she’s expected to help the team endure the loss of its two main players in their championship-winning campaign last season, outside hitters Natalia Pereira and Gabi Guimarães, who both transferred to Turkish clubs.
“It’s impossible to replace such amazing players as Natalia and Gabi but I do expect to come into this Superliga with the same aggressive mentality,” she told VolleyballMag.com. “I’m very excited to play in such a competitive league but it means we have to be focused every match. The schedule is much more rigorous here. We play more often and also travel further so there is less time to for training. After a match you need to be able to bounce back and reset in order to be ready for the next game.”
At Itambé Minas, McClendon will be able to share the court with two-time Brazilian Olympians Sheilla Castro and Thaisa Menezes. The team also features Brazil’s national team starting setter Macris Carneiro and Venezuela’s outside hitter Roslandy Alvaro.
McClendon’s time in Brazil started on the wrong foot as she was victim of racist comments during preseason, but she’s confident her experience in the country will be extremely beneficial to her career.
“The biggest factor for me was the high level of this league and getting a chance to play with and against some of the best players in the world,” the outside hitter said. “This experience is the biggest opportunity that I’ve had in my career so far. Brazil also has some of the best fans in the world. Everyone really loves volleyball here and it makes it such and amazing environment to play in. Getting the chance to face off against some of the best will be a great way to grow further and to show what kind of player I am to the world.”
The youngest of the four, the 24-year-old Wilhite is also looking for a new experience with her move to Brazil from Germany — she also played in Italy. A product of the University of Minnesota, she was part of the American national team roster during the 2018 and 2019 Volleyball Nations League campaigns and also at the 2018 World Championships.
Playing for Sesi Vôlei Bauru, she’ll have as teammates Azerbaijan’s star opposite Polina Rahimova, Brazil’s national team setter and Olympic champion Dani Lins and transgender outside hitter Tiffany Abreu.
“I have always had the desire to play in Brazil,” she said. “I came to Brazil a couple times with the national team and I really noticed the passion and love for volleyball. The fans love supporting and it makes for an amazing environment to play in. I reached out to Carli Lloyd and she had so many positive things to say. I believe the Superliga in Brazil will be very competitive, there are so many strong teams so each game will be difficult.”
Felix, 24, was the last to arrive, as the UCLA product recently signed with Curitiba Vôlei after spending the last four seasons playing in England and Finland. The club, which is playing in the country’s elite for just the second time, has one of the oldest players in the league, 43-year-old Beijing 2008 Olympic champion middle-blocker Valeska Menezes, and Colombian setter Maria Marín.
The four players enter the season with different aspirations, but about one thing they all agree: American volleyball could be even stronger if the country managed to have its own professional league.
“I think the United States would greatly benefit from having a professional volleyball league,” Wilhite said. “Volleyball continues to grow so I think adding a professional league would continue the forward movement. It would create opportunities for countless players and enable us to play in our country without traveling overseas for the majority of the year.”
Guilherme Torres, who has worked with the Brazilian Volleyball Federation, the Rio 2016 Olympic Organizing Committee, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) and the Beach Major Series, covers Brazilian volleyball for VolleyballMag.com. His other articles can be seen here:
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