Three months at the U make freshman a star

Puerto Rican Daly Santana moved to Minnesota to play college volleyball.

Daly Santana joined the Gophers three months ago from Puerto Rico. Santana, a freshman, has already emerged as one of the team's strongest players.

Mark Vancleave

Daly Santana joined the Gophers three months ago from Puerto Rico. Santana, a freshman, has already emerged as one of the team’s strongest players.

Megan Ryan

Gophers freshman outside hitter Daly Santana started playing volleyball for obvious reasons.

She was tall.

“All the people around me were always telling me, ‘She’s so tall. You should take advantage of that height,’” Santana’s mom, Magdaly Morales, said in Spanish.

At 6 feet 1 inch, Santana has come a long way from bumping a volleyball into the wall for practice as a 7-year-old in her native Puerto Rico.

Now 17, she starts for the 10th-ranked collegiate team in the U.S. She plays all six rotations as an outside hitter, wields one of the best serves in the nation and is in contention for the nation’s Freshman of the Year award.

Santana said she wasn’t always athletic and tried many sports before volleyball.

“And when I started playing volleyball, even though I wasn’t that good … I still wanted to come back and still practice,” she said.

She was always serious about her sport and knew it could take her to places beyond Corozal, Puerto Rico.

“I just felt that need to be playing volleyball because I loved it,” Santana said. “I had that passion.”

Fan-favorite freshman

Santana has made a big impact on the Gophers in her three months with the team.

Freshman outside hitter Karlie Hauer, Santana’s friend and teammate, said that was expected. Hauer met Santana at one of the Gophers’ last open gym sessions of the summer.

“She was really good,” Hauer said. “I saw her hit, and I already knew that I was in for lots of competition this year.”

Santana has started every match and played every set so far this season, helping the Gophers to a 17-4 overall record and an 8-2 conference record.

“She plays … the whole game, and that’s playing a lot of volleyball,” associate head coach Laura Bush said. “Her skill level, I thought, was very good, especially for her age.”

Santana said it wasn’t a hard decision to move 2,500 miles away from home, away from everything she knew. She said the higher level of volleyball in the U.S. was too tempting.

“I knew if I came here, I was going to get better,” Santana said, “because it’s just how it goes. Every single player that comes here [that] goes back to Puerto Rico — wow.”

Santana said recruiters from the U.S. come every year to scout players at the Puerto Rican equivalent to a state high school championship.

She visited Arkansas and Florida International University and was planning to visit Washington State, but she fell for Minnesota instead.

Santana said she loved the people, the coaching staff and the school. She also said having a former Olympic head coach in Hugh McCutcheon was an uncommon opportunity.

So she took advantage of it.

Her mother said she always wanted her daughter to play in the U.S. — no matter how hard it would be.

“It doesn’t matter, the time [away],” Morales said in Spanish. “If it’s the best for Daly and her future, I’ll support her.”

So far, Santana said the experience has exceeded her expectations, which were already high.

“I never had thought about it being so awesome,” Santana said.

Santana has already tallied two Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards — one Monday and the other Oct. 8. She leads her team with 41 aces and ranks third in the nation in aces per set.

About five years ago, Santana switched positions from middle blocker to outside hitter. With the change, she said her passing and serving improved.

She has experimented with different serves for about four years — from a standing float serve she couldn’t control to a jump-float that either soared out of bounds or hit the net.

She said she decided last year to focus on just one serve instead of constantly changing. She practiced her now-signature jump-spin serve at least 15 to 20 times after every practice.

“If I don’t practice it … it just goes bad,” Santana said. “It’s something that I need to keep improving on all the time.”

Her powerful serve and performance on the court have made her a fan favorite. Her serve elicits gasps from the crowd, and at some matches, she has her own cheering section of children sporting signs with her name.

Santana said she hears the cheers, and they make her want to know her fans because she never expected to have so many.

But her new admirers didn’t please everyone, namely her 5-year-old sister, Dariana. Santana said Dariana was jealous when she saw on TV one of the Gophers ball girls give Santana a hug after a game.

More than a game

Santana has six siblings. While she’s the third youngest, she’s the first to play volleyball — one of the most popular sports in Puerto Rico, Santana said.

Santana said the sport stopped being just a game at age 11, when she made Puerto Rico’s youth national team.

After two months practicing with the team, Santana formally tried out and realized she wanted to compete with the other girls for one of the 12 to 14 spots on the roster.

Santana eventually led her team to a bronze medal at the 2010 NORCECA Girls’ Youth Volleyball Tournament. She also captained the team at the 2011 FIVB Volleyball Girls’ Youth World Championship.

Her success on the youth team didn’t go unnoticed. The senior national team coaches, who also coached the youth team, sometimes saw Santana play.

They also saw her play for a professional club in her last year at Bayamon Military Academy in Puerto Rico. Eventually, they invited her to try out.

Santana said the fire she had at age 11 returned. She wanted that spot on the national team.

She got it. In 2011, she made the roster for the Pan American games. She was also on the 2012 team for the Pan American Cup and the World Grand Prix.

But Santana said the transition was tough. She and her youth teammates had grown close — like sisters, she said.

“We’d been playing together since we were little girls,” Santana said, “so being able to go so far and see so many different things and cultures with them, it was awesome.”

“It was hard [on the national team] because I was playing with women,” she added. “They’re amazing players. You learn a lot, not only from volleyball but from life.”

Santana said she hopes to play volleyball professionally someday., although she’s considering a medical career too.

“I want to go back to Puerto Rico and play again,” Santana said. “Or just go to play professional volleyball wherever I have the opportunity.”

The pinnacle of a career in volleyball would be an Olympic gold medal. Santana said she thinks Puerto Rico could compete on that level someday.

As of August, Puerto Rico’s national team ranks No. 19 in the world. The youth team ranks No. 21 as of January.

“Like every team, we have to work hard for it,” Santana said. “I mean, it’s not something easy to go to. It’s an Olympics.”

No stranger to change

Santana said the biggest difference in the U.S. is the food.

“We kind of have the same things [in Puerto Rico] except we cook differently,” Santana said. “So it doesn’t taste the same.”

For example, Santana took her mother to eat at Qdoba when she visited her last week for the first time since Santana’s move to Minnesota.

Santana said her mother was confused by the combination of rice, beans and cheese wrapped in a burrito.

“I have no idea, but I like it,” Santana told her mom.

Santana said she’s used to different cultures since she has traveled to places like Turkey with Puerto Rico’s national teams.

“I think I’ve been able to adapt to it really fast because I just like to try new things,” Santana said.

But Santana said she still misses “everything” about Puerto Rico, including her native language, Spanish.

Hauer said Santana sometimes asks her teammates for help with English pronunciation.

“Sometimes we give her a hard time for how she enunciates some things,” Hauer said. “So we kind of make fun of her accent sometimes, but she’s OK with it.”

Santana had to become comfortable with her new teammates and surroundings quickly, as the team had the freshman class put on a talent show for the entire team and coaching staff.

“That was a pretty embarrassing moment,” Santana said. “But it was so fun. My partner was Karyn [Israel], and we practiced like crazy.”

Santana said probably every member of the team has a video of her and Israel singing and dancing in tutus to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”

Santana said she is already becoming attached to her Gophers teammates. She said she shops at the Mall of America and has sleepovers with many of her fellow underclassmen. The team has meetings where “we’re just gossiping,” she said.

“At the end of my four years, I’ll have so many friends,” Santana said. “Oh my God, I’ll be the happiest person ever.”