There’s way more than volleyball on the minds of Towson’s Carola Biver, Jocelyn Kuilan and Julymar Otero.
The three are from Puerto Rico and keeping their focus on their studies and their sport has been very difficult since their home island was decimated by back-to-back hurricanes.
Otero is a senior from Toa Baja, about 20 miles west of San Juan, also the hometown of Kulian, a junior, and Tennessee senior Kanisha Jimenez.
Otero said her family is safe but that their area was crushed by the storms.
“Personally my family lost everything, Otero said. “My mom is staying in a refugee camp.”
Biver is a junior from San Juan.
“Obviously it’s hard for me to not think about my family’s circumstances 24/7,” Biver said. “I often find myself thinking about it in matches and games but it only motivates me to fight and play better.”
When Towson, which is located north of Baltimore, played William & Mary on September 24, “I was very emotional because my team did a prayer for Puerto Rico before the match and they wrote PR on their shoes and hands and that only made me want to have the best game of my life. I actually had a season-high in kills! It gives me something to fight for.”
Towson used its home matches this past Friday night against Hofstra (which turned out to be its first loss of the season) and Sunday against Northeastern to create awareness of the plight of Puerto Rico and raise money for https://unidosporpuertorico.com/en/
Towson also made this video featuring the three players:
“It is completely devastating, the condition that Puerto Rico was left in, but together we are working to make Puerto Rico better than before,” Biver said. “We have to focus on the positives rather than the negative things because we already have enough of that.”
The NCAA leader in kills, Arkansas senior outside Pilar Victoria, is from Caguas, about 20 miles south of San Juan. Her teammate, junior Okiana Valle, is from Barcelona, PR, on the far western side of the island.
Victoria, who is friends with both Otero and Jimenez, said it took days for her to finally talk on the phone with her parents.
“My friends and my family are doing good. They have food and they have water but they have no power,” Victoria said.
Puerto Rico was first hit by Hurricane Irma on September 7 and then took a direct blast from Hurricane Maria on September 20, which decimated the island of more than three million people. Most of Puerto Rico is still without electricity and dealing with shortages of water, food, gas and supplies of any kind.
“That first week was really hard, especially for Okiana,” Victoria said. “It was a very stressful week.”
Minnesota senior libero Dalianliz Rosada is from Morovis in north central Puerto Rico.
“The island is destroyed, my house got a little bit of damage, but the most important thing is that my family is OK,” said Rosada, who admitted the past couple of weeks have been difficult.
“It’s been a little tough to focus and be engaged,” she said. “But I think I’ve dealt with it pretty well and stay calm.”
No overall college volleyball program was more impacted by this than Springfield’s, a Division III school in western Massachusetts, where the national-champion men’s team has been built with standout Puerto Rican players. The women’s team features senior All-American libero Anagabrielle Sanchez, who is also from Caguas, while the men’s team has 10 players from Puerto Rico.
“My sister waited in line for gas for five hours yesterday and my mom told me today that they have no more water,” sophomore Johjan Mussa Robles said last week. He, too, is from Caguas. “Everyone is healthy, but people are getting very desperate trying to find basic necessities for life.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have a cousin who works in bakery, so we’ve been able to get some bread. It’s very difficult to get around the roads in my hometown. I’m lucky to have so many other Puerto Ricans on this team. We take care of each other, it’s helpful to know we have a bond and are going through it all together. Coach (Charlie Sullivan) has been there for us since the storm hit and the school is rallying around us to provide aid for back home.”
Junior Eli Irizarry Pares is an AVCA second-team All-American libero from San Juan.
“It’s obviously a very difficult time for all of us, but it’s been so helpful to have so many other guys from Puerto Rico and Coach Sullivan be so supportive and there for us,” Pares said.”Some guys go days without hearing from their families and the stories we’ve heard about the devastation makes it hard to imagine what Puerto Rico will look like when we go back. We lean on each other and support one another. My brother and sister are also attending Springfield College with me now, which is helpful, but this has all been very hard.”
This past June, VolleyballMag.com had this feature on BYU freshman Gabi Garcia. His mother, Rebecca Fernandez said from their home in San Juan that his family is safe.
“We have no electricity, no water and no internet, but our house is OK, thank God,” Fernandez said. “Cell signals come and go, not even good for a phone call. No Whatsapp, no internet, just some text and not all of them can be sent or received.”
Fernandez said she is very appreciative of BYU coach Shawn Olmstead and the parents of his teammates for helping Gabi.
“He was nervous because we live relatively close to the ocean, so when CNN announced floodings, he believed our house was one of them,” Fernandez said. “Our first conversation was Sunday, five days after the hurricane. The poor kid was a mess.”
Sam Middleborn has never been to Puerto Rico, but she’s scheduled to join the professional team Changas there in January
Middleborn, who was the Division II national player of the year at Cal State San Bernadino, played in France in 2012, then Switzerland for two years, sat out 2015 and was in Korea last year. But while she was in Korea, Middleborn learned she was pregnant with now 6-month-old twins.
“I’m not ready to give it up yet,” she said this week from her home in Southern California. “I was playing about three weeks after I gave birth.”
Accordingly, Middleborn said she’s ready to go to Puerto Rico and play under any circumstances.
“I hope things work out,” she said. “I want to play.”
So does Puerto Rican women’s national team coach Javier Gaspar. Gaspar said last week by email he’s OK, but it’s a tough situation.
“As of right now we don’t have any electricity, most of the island does not have water and the internet is crazy,” the former Penn State men’s standout emailed last week. “You have to drive around until you find a spot with internet access. Five to six hours in line to get gasoline, it is a bit crazy.
“On the volleyball side, we started the local men’s tournament last week, we only played two matches. I have not heard any official word, but I think that it will be canceled.
“The men’s national team did not make it to NORCECA in Colorado Springs because they could not reach all the players and there were no flights out of San Juan during those days.”
Gaspar said that he hopes his women’s national team will still compete in the NORCECA in mid-October in the Dominican Republic.
It’s hard for all of them.
“I’m 24/7 thinking about my family and the situation in Puerto Rico,” Towson’s Otero said. “It’s hard to concentrate in classes and match but right now the only thing that motivates me is that all I’m doing is for my family, especially my mom. I need to finish strong and graduate.”
The Give It Back Foundation has also set up a way to donate to help Puerto Rico. The charitable organization was founded by many USA Olympic volleyball players, some of whom have played professionally in Puerto Rico. There is a place on the home page to donate specifically to the city of Cataño.