More than 30 years after that day when he connected through Pittsburgh and flew a small Allegheny plane into State College, Pa., Javier Gaspar talked about a totally new chapter in his volleyball life.
Last fall, the former Penn State star was named the coach of the Puerto Rican women’s national team. Gaspar coached only men from 1998, when his playing career ended, until he started coaching some women in 2009. Even last November, as he took the new job, he was still coaching the Los Mets de Guaynabo pro men’s team.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Gaspar said in November over breakfast in San Juan. There are a lot of expectations with that team after qualifying for the Olympics and they did extremely well in the Grand Prix,” Gaspar said. “We’ve done well in our zones, in Central America we’re a top team with the Dominican Republic.”
Gaspar was the Puerto Rican men’s coach and his team came up short in trying to get to Rio. After the Olympics, he explained, the federation completely restructured.
“They asked if we would coach women. I said yes,” Gaspar recalled.
So when he got the women’s team, he brought with him assistants Abdell Otero and Hector Reyes. Their real work begins in earnest when the pro players come home and gather in the spring.
Gaspar is a pharmaceutical rep for GlaxoSmithKline. He got into that business when he retired from playing in 1998. He and his ex-wife, still a pro player in Puerto Rico, have a 5-year-old son, Eric.
Gaspar, now 50, was discovered by, of all people, Penn State women’s coach Russ Rose. At the time, Rose was coaching a men’s pro team in Puerto Rico, Ajuntas, and through his mutual friend Tony Quiles tipped off then Penn State coach Tom Tait about Gaspar, a star at University of Puerto Rico High School in San Juan. Penn State already had another Puerto Rican in Jose Rubayo.
Gaspar went to Penn State sight unseen.
“I took an Allegheny commuter into State College and I remember looking out the window thinking, ‘Where am I going?’ And then you see Beaver Stadium. It’s like a battleship. Wow. For me it was a perfect fit and I really enjoyed being in Happy Valley. Probably the four best years of my life. It was awesome.”
He said the first time the Penn State team actually saw him was in pickup games. And then as the season loomed near, the other two setters were declared ineligible. So Tait went with a 5-1 for the first time and he did it with a 6-foot freshman who had a vertical nearing 40 inches.
Penn State made to two final fours and despite being ranked No. 1 much of his senior year in 1988, the Nittany Lions lost in the EIVA to George Mason and didn’t get an at-large bid.
He was invited to train with the U.S. national team, so Gaspar moved to San Diego. They weren’t overpaid back then — “My parents helped me a lot” — as he tried to make the 1992 Olympic team.
Eventually Jeff Stork and Dan Greenbaum were the American setters in Barcelona. He made it to Spain, but a year later as a pro, playing four years in the north and one in the south. And in 1995 Gaspar headed home to Puerto Rico to play in a men’s pro league.
Unhappy with the money situation for the Moca team he was on and ready to get into the real world, he finally retired in 1998.
“There was a little bit of controversy. Here in Puerto Rico there can be a problem with players getting paid. And they were a little behind. So I asked for my free agency hearing.”
He was denied and he’d already gotten a job. Gaspar recalled being named setter of the year, getting a sportsmanship award and then announcing, “I’m retiring from volleyball. I have other stuff to do. And I walked away from the game.”
But he only stayed away one year and started coaching at the University of Puerto Rico, a job he held for four years. During that time, he started coach in the men’s pro league.
However, he never coached women until directing the Carolina club in 2009.
“I enjoyed it and the teaching,” Gaspar said.
He continued coaching men, too, and in May 2015 was named head coach of the men’s team.
The Puerto Ricans played in the World League and finished fourth in the PanAm Games and were third in Norceca.
But then, in one of the Olympic tournaments, Puerto Rico was up 2-0 over Mexico and ahead 24-22 in the fourth set before losing the set and the match.
“That hurt,” he recalled.
Mexico went on to qualify for the Olympics.
But shortly after it all changed and the EIVA hall of famer had a new job.
The NCAA has seen more than its share of Puerto Rican standouts the past few years, including Daly Santana and Dali Rosado of Minnesota and, although she’s mostly from Miami, Paulina Prieto Cerame of Texas. They will all be in the mix for 2020.
“We have a lot of talent but we need to identify it. We need to get most of those players to go to the U.S. and play in the NCAA and feed from that,” Gaspar said. “Once they come back from the NCAA and are in the national-team program, we should have those girls — and the men, too — play overseas.
“We don’t have year-round programs, so I would rather have my players when they’re done with the NCAA go overseas.”