Each year when we publish our sport standard-bearing Fab 50 lists (honoring the top 50 senior-age level boys and girls indoor players), we ask a distinguished panel of NCAA coaches to cast their ballots.
And each year, a name or two raises some curiosity.
With this year’s VolleyballMag.com Boys Fab 50 list that name is Gabi Garcia, whom several panelists voted as one of the top five players in the class.
Garcia is a 6-foot-7 right-side hitter from Puerto Rico. He prepped at Saint Francis School in the San Juan suburb of Carolina and plays for the Borinquen Coqui club program. Those veterans of the USA Volleyball boys and girls junior national championships will recognize that club name as a constant in tournament fields over the years.
Garcia recently was part of the Puerto Rican junior national team that competed in NORCECA U21 Pan American Cup in Fort McMurray, Canada. Garcia was the tournament’s high-scorer on the second day of action with 19 points.
He was scheduled to play for Cal Baptist next season until the university disbanded the men’s volleyball program. Garcia’s mother, Rebecca Fernandez, recently told VolleyballMag.com that he is headed to 2017 NCAA runner-up BYU pending an eligibility verification by the NCAA.
But with all the high praise Garcia has received of late, he says he still has a long way to go in the sport in which he has excelled.
“It’s focus, work hard and be humble every time when I’m on the court and off the court,” he said. “I know what I do wrong and I know what I can do better.”
Garcia says hitting from right side is can be tough.
“I’m the first option on the team. It’s my job to put the ball in the court and score points,” he said. “The toughest part about being a right side is the pressure. My only job is to put the ball on the other side. I don’t have to pass like the outsides. Everybody is counting on me to hit. You have to be mentally focused and have the self-assuredness to do that.”
Garcia, who has been playing volleyball for six years, started out as a youngster playing baseball.
“One of the coaches saw me playing in school and put me in the club. I’ve been there since I was 13,” he says. “I loved baseball. That was the first sport I was good at and then I got good at volleyball. I started playing volleyball and then I started loving the game. I have a big passion for it. I’m playing at high levels now and I hopefully I can play at even higher levels in the future.”
Garcia credits the teachings at the Borinquen Coqui club for his development over the years.
“My club helps a lot,” he said. “When I first got into volleyball I wasn’t that good. I didn’t serve over the net. I had no control of my body and no strength. The coaches helped me get better.”
Garcia originally was earmarked as a middle blocker.
“Ones of the coaches said, ‘No, you are a right side,’ ” he recalled. “I have worked hard at it to be what I want to be when I grow up. I worked hard, I’m here and I know I still have to get better. The club helped me a lot to be who I am as a player and as a person.”
Borinquen Coqui coach Luis “Pichi” Rodriguez has been there since the beginning of Garcia’s development.
“I have seen and participated in the development of this young man to the man he is today,”Rodriguez said. “I am a witness to his potential. Beyond the great athlete he is, he has other skills that make him a great sportsman. He has a continued desire to learn and listen. His humility, work ethic and commitment have been key for him to develop at a high speed. That transformation from being a player in development to an elite player has given him some additional tools such as leadership and the charisma he has while playing. That makes him a role model.”
Observers say Garcia’s personality might be his biggest weapon on and off the court.
“I’ve known him since he was 12. I have the pleasure to consider him my second son,” Borinquen Coqui team rep Elise Torres said. “His humbleness and sportsmanship are his greatest talents. He is one of a kind.”
Dr. Anthony Melendez, vice president of the Puerto Rico Volleyball Federation and also in charge of the country’s youth national programs, adds: “Gabi is an excellent player, but more importantly he is a great human being. His skill set combined with his physical attributes and maturity on the court make him a player you don’t see often. He has the potential to be part of our main players on the national team, but it is something he needs to work for.”
When he received the news that Cal Baptist was shuttering its program, Garcia admits it took the wind out of his sails.
“It was shocking news,” he said. “I knew I had to stay calm and realize my parents will help me be all right. I know God has a plan. If Cal Baptist wasn’t his choice, it’s not ours.”
Garcia, part of two Borinquen club teams that won USA Volleyball junior-national gold medals (at 13s and 14s), says having the opportunity to play at the collegiate level (he revealed upward of 10 colleges called once the Cal Baptist situation went down) helps erase some bad memories from when he first started in the sport.
“Growing up, people said I couldn’t do it,” he said. “They said I was too soft and not agile and didn’t have the talent to do it. Yes, I wasn’t strong and I wasn’t talented when I started, but six years of hard work has proven I can do it.
“Where I am as a player and as a person makes me very happy and satisfied. All the work I’ve done since I was 13 is paying off. But it’s not over. I know I have to do more in college as a player and as a student.”
Rodriguez sees big things ahead for his prized pupil.
“The next years in college and his summers with the Puerto Rico national team should help his game develop,” he said. “He can make an impact on an international level.”