Ladies flying the flag with pride for Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico's 3-0 (25-14, 25-16, 25-11) victory over Costa Rica in the final of the NORCECA Pool R Qualification Tournament on May 25 was an emphatic demonstration of their strength. Puerto Rico will now prepare for the Women's World Championship, which takes place from September 23 to October 12.
The men’s national team, however, suffered a shock 3-0 defeat against Mexico in their final. "It was not our best game and Mexico played very well, making all the necessary adjustments after the first match between us," said a shocked Puerto Rican coach David Aleman, who quickly turned his attention to the challenge ahead. "We will just have to secure our ticket at the second attempt."
His team’s last chance to secure the final vacant ticket for the FIVB Men’s World Championship now comes at a playoff tournament to take place in July, where they will face the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Costa Rica.
Last year, the ladies also finished third in the NORCECA Championship, behind Olympic silver medallists the United States and the Dominican Republic. That was a clear indication of an upwards trend. The scouts at top club teams around the world have had their eye on the powerful players from Puerto Rico for a while now. The experienced Aury Cruz for example plays her volleyball at Rabita Baku, the former Club World Champions and this year’s bronze medallists in the European Champions League.
“I’m really happy after this qualification,” said Cruz. "I feel good mentally as well as physically." The 32-year-old has been playing for the Puerto Rican national team since 1996. The team has now qualified for the FIVB Women’s World Championship four times in a row. In 2002 they even finished as high as ninth place, and Cruz is optimistic ahead of the highlight of the season in Italy. "We have always made it to the second round. What happened in 2010 was due to a lack of precision, lack of training. We have to establish a system of play in the next months that can be the key to competing at a high level at the World Championship."
It will be a tough ask to come through the first round, however. With their opponents expected to be Japan, China, Cuba, Belgium and Azerbaijan, Puerto Rico find themselves in probably the most evenly balanced group of all. Jose Mieles, coach of Puerto Rico, remains optimistic though: "I’m very happy because we achieved our goal. The team has worked well in the short period of training we have had and now we have to begin the preparations for the route to Italy."
Veteran Aury Cruz was once again a key player in the final of the World Championship qualification tournament, chipping in with ten points. Puerto Rican captain Yarimar Rosa also stood out with her 16 points, including four aces, while setter Natalia Valentin was instrumental with six blocks and 8 points.
Vanessa Velez of Puerto Rico was named Most Valuable Player at the NORCECA Women’s World Championship Qualification Tournament. She enjoyed an excellent overall performance during the four-day competition and won the awards for Best Scorer, Best Server and Best Opposite.
Aury Cruz is focused on the future: "Now we must work hard, because the challenge is greater." A key instrument in preparations for the FIVB Women’s World Championship will be the FIVB World Grand Prix in July and August. In the preliminary round, Puerto Rico will face Poland, Peru, the Netherlands, Argentina, Canada, and two of their opponents in the first round of the World Championship, Cuba and Belgium.