After failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics at January’s NORCECA Tokyo Volleyball Qualification tournament, Puerto Rico women’s national team went in search of a brighter future. The decision to name a new head coach last month in Fernando Morales was one move in that direction.
The former setter, who worked as an assistant under former coach Jose Mieles for one year and who was recommended by him for the position, has ambitious plans for the programme and the first of them is to move the Central Americans up from their current 16th spot in the FIVB World Rankings.
“The immediate goal is to improve our position in the world rankings and hopefully get closer to the top NORCECA teams,” Morales told Volleyball World. “It’s one of the strongest volleyball regions on the planet and there will be a lot of competition with an improving Canadian national team, a Mexican squad that has some athletes playing in Europe and a Cuban roster that is showing signs that they could be coming back to their best days.”
To make Morales’ job even more challenging, he’ll have to do that while he brings new faces into the Puerto Rican national team and replaces several members of the historic generation that qualified the country for their first Olympics at Rio 2016.
Some key members of that team, including captain Yarimar Rosa and setter Vilmarie Mojica, had already left the team, but the rebuilding feeling grew even more intense when the legendary Aurea Cruz and Karina Ocasio both announced they were stepping away within the last year.
With that, the role of the few returning players from the country’s only Olympic campaign, most notably outside hitters Stephanie Enright and Daly Santana, setter Natalia Valentin and libero Shara Venegas, will be even more important as Morales starts the inevitable revamp.
“Some important players retired from the national team, but I believe our group is good enough to compete in our region,” the head coach added. “Cruz and Ocasio will certainly be hugely missed and some of our players are getting to their thirties, so we need to make sure we have some young talent in place to replace them when the time comes. I count on some of the players who were part of our Olympic roster to help with the transition and keep our level high while we introduce these new players and to have received their full support when I first shared my plans was amazing.”
The good news is that the 38-year-old Morales, who played for the Puerto Rican national team from 2001 to 2014 and was the team’s captain during part of that period, knows exactly where to look as he searches for younger players to join the national team.
Besides following the country’s national league, Morales has already started mapping out Puerto Rican players who compete in the American collegiate volleyball system (NCAA). As he also works as the head coach of the University of Evansville and has one of his national team assistants, Jesus Echevarria, also as part of his staff with the Purple Aces, it seems like a smart route to take.
“We’re trying to identify Puerto Rican players in the NCAA and even athletes who have Puerto Rican fathers and could join the team,” the former national team setter explained. “We just recently started working on this front and have already identified enough players to form a good young group, so we’re confident we can find even more if we keep searching.”
Morales, for sure, has great company in the task ahead of him. The former national team setter turned to a couple of his longtime teammates, legendary opposite Hector ‘Picky” Soto and veteran libero Gregory Berrios, to join his coaching staff.
With the three being part of arguably the most successful generation of male players Puerto Rico has ever had, Morales believes the connection with the past will ensure a bright future.
“Having gone to so many battles with Grego and Picky gives me the confidence that they will work hard and help a lot as we pursue our goals,” the coach concluded. “In Puerto Rico, most of the time the sacrifice outweighs the rewards and these two will certainly help me deliver this message. I see some former players doing good work with national teams around the world and I’m confident we have the knowledge and the experience to develop a good plan and make good decisions that will make the national team successful.”
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Former setter Morales named Puerto Rican coach
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