Getting ready to ring in 2016 here in Korea and it has been wild to look back on all the memories of 2015. I graduated from the University of Illinois and parted ways with what was my home and my bubble of a world for 4 years. And quite the adventure it has been.
Flashback to last January. After I rang in the new year with my friends and family, I was told to be ready to leave any day for Puerto Rico after signing my first professional contract with the Valencianas de Juncos. On January 2nd, they sent me my plane ticket to leave the morning of the 3rd. Time to ball out in the Caribbean.
Every player who plays in Puerto Rico will have drastically different experiences depending on the year, the team, and the management at that given time. I’ve heard horror stories of mold infested apartments with no furniture, never getting picked up from the airport, and getting fired via a text message and e-ticket flight home. So I went into this experience expecting the worst but hoping for the best. And from the second I got there I was pleasantly surprised. Things were relatively organized, I had a lovely home and car to arrive to and the 80 degree January didn’t hurt things either.
The volleyball league there is a short 4 or 5 months, so you get to jump right into season quickly. There was hardly any training for me, just several matches a week against the other 6 teams on the island. There’s no time for teams to be patient and its certainly not a league where they care about future potential. They want results. ASAP. Each team gets 2 foreigners, and in most cases they are hitters that are expected to score points. Regardless. They don’t care how, they just care that you do. Hit 30 balls out, as long as you score 31 they’ll consider it a relative success. Only get set 10 times? You still need 30 points. Slight exaggeration, but you get the idea of what is expected from you. Sure, scoring points the goal for players all across the globe. But in Puerto Rico if you do not meet their crazy expectations, don’t expect to stick around. No seriously, a bad game or two will most likely turn into a plane ticket back home, or at least a far less enjoyable time. I could count on one hand the number of foreigners that lasted a whole season on their teams, and it was really hard (and stressful!) to see so many great players get their contracts broken around me. But I guess Puerto Rico has that luxury where replacements are bountiful. So if you play well or if your team is winning, life is great. If not, it can turn very sour for you.
I was really lucky I went into a team with several PR national team members and the league mvp, so we had a lot of other weapons but also had a lot of expectations. The fans down there are very, very critical, but also very passionate and loyal to their respective teams. I was called big and slow at first, but I think I eventually proved myself as a player. Having hardly ever stepped foot behind the 3 meter line into the back court and having little experience as a 6 rotation player, I wouldn’t say I was a great volleyball player when I went down there. But I knew if I crushed balls, took care of my main job, eventually I’d improve in the other areas. So I embraced the idea of getting backward bump sets from across the gym and taking a rip. And with each game I became more consistent, and I worked my way onto the mvp ballot and finished 2nd in the league in points. My team ended up losing a tight 6 game series in the semi-finals, but we held our heads high because it was the best finish for Juncos since 2008.
I feel like Puerto Rico was a great starting place for my career and I consider it a very successful season for me. I learned what it was like to be a pro, and also got a lot experience. I could definitely see myself going back and playing there if the offer comes around again. I met some incredibly welcoming people and experienced the vibrant Puerto Rican culture.
I miss walking into the locker room everyday and there being 2 dozen krispy kreme donuts and 2 boxes of quesitos with hot coffee waiting for you. I miss getting handed a cold beer on the way out of the gym after a late night game. I miss the mariachi bands jamming in the stands. I miss the traffic jams because horses are in the middle of the street or the birds pooping on me in the gym. Ok those two were total lies, but it’s those quirks of Puerto Rico that had me leaving with a smile on my face. I look forward to sharing more of the laughs and struggles of life on the island with you all. There were weeks where I had more off days than practice days, so when I got the hang of things, I had a lot of time to go out exploring on my own, checking out what the beautiful island got to offer me!
Liz is not a name common in other languages, and neither is the pronounciation. (z’s are hard sometimes, guys) I learned early that I will now go by Leees wherever I am, or in the case of my head coach in Juncos, he liked to call me Leaf, why? Nobody knows, but he was pretty set with calling me that. So this rookie year was the first chapter for what I anticipate to be a rewarding book on the adventures of “Lees Overseas.”