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Puerto Rican debutants give Austrian medal contenders a bit of a scare

Puerto Rico's Christian Encarnacion and his partner Kevin Joel Rodriguez put up a good fight against Austria's Petutschnig/Winter
Myslowice, Poland, June 11, 2014 - Puerto Ricans Kevin Joel Rodriguez and Christian Encarnacion made an impressive international debut on Wednesday at the FIVB Beach Volleyball U23 World Championships in Myslowice.

The young duo took a surprise three-point-lead in the first set against last year’s bronze medallists Lorenz Petutschnig and Tobias Winter from Austria. They eventually lost the match 2-0 (21-19, 21-12) but their performance against the 2nd seeded team was promising.

“I feel very proud to come here for the first time to represent Puerto Rico. We did good, but we should concentrate better”, said 19-year old Rodriguez after their first group match in main draw. Both he and 20-year old blocker Encarnation showed great technical skills.

According to coach Angel ‘Cholo’ Pena, a former international beach volleyball player, both boys are gifted technical players. They were skilled in volleyball, although Rodriguez started playing on the beach at an early age at festivals. “In Puerto Rico there are not a lot of tall players, so we concentrate on technical control.”

With great defence and spectacular top spin angle shots the Puerto Rican boys managed to take a cheeky 18-15 lead in the first set. Austria then took a time-out and came back to win the set 21-19.

“We felt he pressure, of needing to score to keep ahead”, Rodriguez said. “We lost concentration and maybe our nerves got in the way.” Encarnation: “But it feels really good to come out here and represent Puerto Rico at such a high level.”

Although his boys were unable to get close in the second set coach Cholo saw chances: “I told them that even though we were prepared to come here, this is their first time in any international beach volleyball competition. Austria is a really strong team, not only that, but the country of Austria is putting a lot of effort in to their youth. They should be thinking if we keep this level and raise it a little bit more maybe we will beat some of the teams in this pool.”

In the beginning years of the FIVB Puerto Rico had a really lively national tour, but it kind of collapsed over the years. Now the national federation and the Olympic committee put a lot of effort in reviving beach volleyball, concentrating on the youth. In May for example there were training camps for the teams representing Puerto Rico at the age-group events and the Youth Olympics in Nanjing this year.

Coach Cholo: “It’s coming back to what is was before, before it was really huge, we were really big, like the AVP. It sort of got away in the last ten years. And yes we do have a national tour, but it’s sort of down now. We are really aiming for the youth. All summer we have more youth tournaments that open.”

The national team now consists of ten guys and eight girls. In Myslowice Gabriela Roman and Lina Bernier are competing in the women’s tournament. “The biggest problem right now is to lure the kids from indoor to beach. We hope that these guys will bring back all these experiences and talk about it with the other kids and get them enthusiastic.”

Coach Cholo hopes that his protégées can become role models in the future, like Roberto ‘Rafu’ Rodriguez is for Rodriguez and Encarnation. But Rafu only plays national and on the Continental Tour, after one season (2006) on the FIVB World Tour.

In the past Puerto Rico had an illustrious duo that where the first ones to represent their country at the Olympic beach tournament. Raúl Papaleo and Ramon Hernandez represented Puerto Rico at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and finished 19th. Their coach back then: Angel ‘Cholo’ Pena!

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