International stars emerging in volleyball

Ben Goessling

The most dynamic player on Minnesota’s volleyball team didn’t start playing in high school to earn a college scholarship.

Nor did she begin competing to win a state championship.

“I just started playing because I was bored,” freshman libero Paula Gentil said.

Ranked eighth in the country in digs per game and one of the biggest reasons for Minnesota’s 17-2 record and No. 6 ranking, Gentil started playing volleyball at the age of five in her hometown of Fortaleza, Ceara, Brazil.

“We practiced for six hours a day, so I’d get done with school around 2:30 and get home around 9,” Gentil said.

And she got burned out.

When Gentil moved to Orlando, Fla., as a junior in high school to learn English, volleyball was the last thing on her mind.

Gentil was only planning to stay in the United States for six months and hadn’t played volleyball in two years. But when she needed a pastime, she gave the game another shot. Now she’s a frontrunner for Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.

Not bad for a two-year hiatus.

Gentil is part of a large wave of international players sweeping the college game. In 2001, there were 299 players from 41 countries on Division I rosters. Florida’s Aury Cruz, Ohio State’s Stacey Gordon, and Nebraska’s Greichaly Cepero, three of 11 returning All-Americans, all hail from outside the United States.

“The international players are simply more skilled at 18 than the American players are,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “Europe doesn’t have a high school system where you play more than one or two sports, so the players grow up quicker.”

Gentil is a prime example. Besides shoring up Minnesota’s anemic defense with her lightning reflexes and heady play, she might be the team’s best server.

Hebert moved Gentil from libero to defensive specialist so she could serve in the fifth game of the Gophers’ win over No. 14 Wisconsin last Friday.

Minnesota took the lead for good on Gentil’s serve and went on to win in Madison for the first time since 1995.

As a result, whenever the Gophers enter a fifth game this year, Gentil will get the call to serve.

Shaky scouting

Coaches around the Big Ten have different policies for scouting international players, which can be a dicey prospect due to the lack of information available to teams.

“We hear about a lot of players by word of mouth. We don’t spend a lot of time trucking around the world to find players,” Ohio State coach Jim Stone said. “I’ve had kids come over after just seeing a videotape.”

Hebert won’t take that chance.

“I’ll fly to Europe to see players,” he said. “We just don’t have enough scholarships to offer one without seeing a player in person.”

But no matter the approach, all coaches agree on one thing: international scouting is a risk.

“A lot of times you’re dealing with a player you’ve never seen,” Stone said. “You don’t always know what you’re getting into.”

Plentiful payoffs

According to Penn State’s Russ Rose, however, the rewards are worth the gamble.

“The foreign players have been involved with club teams and national teams, so you’re getting players who have competed with professionals,” Rose said.

Said Stone: “There are no rules in other countries in terms of players’ ability to receive off-season coaching. They play a lot of volleyball (internationally), so the transition from high school to college is not such a huge step.”

Gentil, for one, has certainly made the move look effortless.

“American players take a long time to get started. They don’t learn until they’re eight or nine,” she said. “I’ve played so much volleyball that the game is easier here.”

So easy that after a two-year break, Gentil has made Gophers fans anything but bored with her play.

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]