The first thing that comes to mind when the Dominican Republic’s women’s national team is brought up in conversation is the unbelievable firepower the Caribbeans have always had, featuring some of the most physical and powerful hitters in international volleyball over the years.
For decades, defence wasn’t the key to the team’s playing system, but that started to change just over a decade ago when Brenda Castillo added her defensive talents to the ‘Reinas del Caribe’ (The Queens of the Caribbean, in Spanish).
Castillo joined the team in 2007, when she was only 15, and her role leading the team’s backcourt and giving the Dominicans an additional strength in international events has earned her a place in her home fans' hearts alongside the likes of scoring machines Milagros Cabral and Bethania De La Cruz.
“She’s spectacular,” De La Cruz told Volleyball World. “Her presence improved our team’s defensive system tremendously. She’s a naturally gifted defender and for us just to watch her digging, it’s inspiring and makes us improve too. I was already with the team when she arrived and she’s always been the kind of player that’s willing to do more than expected and go the extra mile. She’s very confident and positive and that makes our lives easier on the court.”
Given the dozens of individual awards Castillo has won in her career, it’s safe to say De La Cruz is not the only one to think highly of the libero. A great example comes from the 2009 FIVB Volleyball U-20 World Championship. Aged 17, Castillo took the Dominican Republic all the way to the silver and took home the MVP, best libero, best digger and best receiver awards.
Just a year later, the 1.67m-tall Castillo wasn’t too far off replicating that same level of performance at the senior level. Playing for her home club Mirador, she was voted the best libero of the 2010 FIVB Volleyball Women’s Club World Championship. The best, however, was yet to come.
Castillo headed into her first Olympics, the London 2012 Games, as one of the key players of the Dominican team. And the 20-year-old star delivered exactly as expected, ending the tournament as the best libero and also the most effective defender, with an average of 6.1 digs per set.
“To win that award at such a young age and while competing with such great athletes, it’s fabulous,” she said in an interview following the tournament. “The Olympics were my goal and what I worked for. We certainly could have done better as a team, but receiving the best libero award is something I’ll never forget, it’s historical.”
Even though the Dominicans failed to qualify for the Rio 2016 Games, Castillo continued her great run of form with the team in the years leading to the event. She was the best libero of the 2013 FIVB Volleyball U-23 World Championship and of the 2015 FIVB Volleyball Women's World Cup, when she also took home the best defender award. At the club level, she was voted the best in her position during the 2013-2014 European Champions League for Azerbaijan’s Rabita Baku.
The four years between the Rio and Tokyo Olympics, however, have been a little different for Castillo. She played in Brazil and the Dominican Republic between 2016 and 2018, but took a break after that season to give birth to her first daughter, Breanna, in February 2019.
She returned to the court in time to help the Dominican Republic at the Tokyo Volleyball Qualification tournament in August, but saw her team finish second behind hosts Brazil. The next week, the Caribbeans went on to win gold at the 2019 Pan-American Games.
A month later, she was involved in a serious car accident and ended up breaking her left arm. She had surgery, but rushed to return in time to be with the team in their last attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, at a qualification tournament in Santo Domingo. Castillo was back to her usual self, claiming the best libero, best defender and best receiver awards on her way to taking her country to another edition of the Games.
“I’ve had some players as pillars of the team since I took over 13 years ago, and Castillo is one of them,” said national team head coach Marcos Kwiek. “She’s one of the best in the world in her position, is extremely talented and gives us some much-needed stability in receiving and defence. We have very physical, aggressive players who need good receiving to be able to play at their best and Castillo helps us immensely with that. She’s a key player for us and is also one of the leaders of the squad because of her passion and determination. She’s important not only technically and tactically for us, but also emotionally.”
In a few months, in Tokyo, she is again likely to be a key player for the Dominican Republican and will show that, yes, they can hit the ball hard, but can also dig it pretty well too.
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