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Puerto Rico’s beach rats

Valeria Cajigas (left) and Lina Bernier (center) pose with Puerto Rican coach Angel Peña (right) and players Daniel Rivera (second from left) and Sergio Figueroa.

Nanjing, China, August 20, 2014 - The “beach rats.” That’s how Puerto Rico coach Angel Peña affectionately refers to his scrappy team.

Puerto Rico is not the tallest team, so they try to outhustle opponents.

“It’s like we are looking for cheese on the court, and we are going to take it,” Peña said.

Peña has two mottos that he constantly preaches his players: “never let the ball hit the ground” and “keep the ball alive.” His players dive for every ball, and refuse to give up on points.

“Taller player will always be taller,” Peña said. “We have to play harder then them.”

Nothing bothers Peña more than when the ball hits sand. When his players make a rare mistake on defense, he expresses his frustration.

“He is always mad,” said Daniel Rivera, “but when he gets really mad he turns into beast mode.”

The “beach rats” have caught the attention of other coaches at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games.

“They told me they like our style of play,” Peña said.

To find his “beach rats,” Peña scoured the island for players with the ideal combination of athleticism and height.

Once he found prospective athletes, Peña had to sell them on playing beach volleyball. Most players in Puerto Rico gravitate towards indoor volleyball, attracted by the prospect of collegiate scholarships or the opportunity to play in the country’s professional league. But Peña believes there are enough athletes in Puerto Rico to play both indoor and beach volleyball.

“For every athlete you take away from indoor,” Peña said, “three more will join indoor.”

Competing at international tournaments such as the Youth Olympic Games is the first step towards developing Puerto Rico’s beach volleyball program.

“Young players will look at us and see the opportunities that exist if you play beach volleyball,” said Lina Bernier.

For Puerto Rico to truly become an established beach volleyball nation, Peña knows his program will need more resources. Considering the number of beaches in Puerto Rico, there are very few beach volleyball courts. Growing up, to simulate the sport, Peña would play outdoors on the cement, hanging a net between two light posts.

“We need way more courts to give the youth an opportunity to play,” Peña said.  “And not just on the beach. We need to bring the sand into the cities and the mountains.”

Peña hopes his team will exceed expectations at the Youth Olympic Games so he can push harder for more resources.

“Sometimes you have to be polite and play the political game,” Peña said, “but I am going to be really straightforward and knock on doors to try to build a top program.”

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