Team Service Spotlight: Women’s Volleyball in Nicaragua

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There was volleyball, service and team camaraderie … and some highly appreciated time in the sunshine. Following the exam break, the Princeton women’s volleyball team went on an international team trip to Nicaragua, and All-Ivy middle Brittany Ptak recapped the trip.

The Princeton women’s volleyball team was so fortunate to be able to go on a trip to Nicaragua during our end of semester break. The trip was organized by “Bring it Promotions” and coordinated by Brooke Rundle, a former University of California Santa Barbara player. The focuses of the trip were competing against the Nicaraguan national team, serving the community, soaking up some sun, and of course bonding as a team through it all! Those on the trip included juniors Kendall Peterkin, Stephanie Marani, and Sarah Daschbach; sophomores Brittany Ptak, Cara Mattaliano, Lauren Miller, and Ellie Shannon; and freshmen Pauli King, Deniz Cekirge, Alex Thompson, Maddie Huber and Kelly Matthews.

Head Coach Sabrina King, assistant coach Kehau Vegas, men’s volleyball athletic trainer Keith Harper, and Princeton Varsity Club Assistant Director Carolyn Cooper were also part of our trip.

Day 1: We began our journey to sunny Nicaragua trudging to the bus through a conveniently timed snowstorm. Of course no one was bringing coats to 80 degree weather, so it was a pretty cold walk as well! After surviving that, the rest of the travel day went much more smoothly. We arrived in Managua late that night and were warned to use bug spray to avoid getting Chikungunya and to never ever drink the tap water! We went right to bed so we would be ready for our match the next morning!

Day 2: After fueling up on some traditional Nicaraguan breakfast that included gallo pinto, fresh fruit, eggs, and juice, we headed to the gym for our first match against the Nicaraguan national team. We hadn’t officially played since our season ended so it felt amazing to compete again. The mood of the match was competitive yet fun with local music playing in the background and lots of people from town watching. Everyone got some court time, and our hard work culminated in a three-set win for the Tigers! The bus ride from Managua to San Juan was particularly fun with everyone singing along to throwback songs, and the countryside was beautiful. We stayed at Hotel Casablanca, which was right across the street from the beach. We wasted no time changing into bathing suits and laying out in the sun. Despite the windy conditions, we all lasted long enough to get at least a shade or two tanner! We had to take advantage of the warmth while we could. The water was very refreshing, and sunset made for some great photo ops. We were all exhausted from such an eventful day so we went to bed pretty soon after dinner.

Day 3: We started off Day 3 with a 6am workout. The sprints and core training were made slightly more enjoyable by the beautiful beach and watching the sunrise but were a lot more difficult because of the shifting sand and waves crashing on us! Rinsing off in the calm surf afterwards was very refreshing though. Then, it was time for the real fun of the day. It was the first day of the volleyball clinic that we ran for local children eager to learn volleyball. We walked about 5 minutes with a good number of volleyballs to set up camp at the sports park near a schoolyard. We played ice breaker/warm up games like sharks and minnows (tiburones y pescados!) and blob tag. Deniz was chosen to be the shark first! The kids had a good time running around and giggling. Then we really broke down the skills in small groups of a match up between one or two kids and a Princeton player as their coach. In this way, a lot of individual attention could be given to everyone. A lot of us currently study or have studied Spanish, so we could really connect with and teach the kids in a way that made a lot of sense to them! Afterwards, we loaded into the vans and headed inland to an afterschool program where children went to learn English. Again, we matched up with partners. We read books that were conducive to language learning. By the end, everyone was laughing while experimenting with some cross-cultural Pictionary! Players and children were all able to learn from the drawing and reading. Stephanie, who relatively didn’t have much Spanish experience, really valued the exchange of knowledge. Afterwards, we walked across the street and shopped for some locally produced jam in support of the community. It was delicious! A lot of us brought our jams around with us to complement other meals during the rest of the trip! That evening we drove out of town to a pool party. The patio area with the pool and outdoor dining overlooked a valley with the Christ of Mercy statue on one side and the bay spreading out before us. It was quite a treat to spend time traveling between towns for these experiences. We got to see the natural countryside, farms, and quaint homes that often had family members playing or sitting in the yard. The ride itself was very fun as well since we sat or stood in the back of pick-up trucks! It was like an electrifying (yet very safe) rollercoaster! Lauren and Alex were particularly thrilled by the stand up truck!

Day 4: We woke up to another excellent Nicaraguan breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs, and toast (complete with the local jam!!). At this morning’s volleyball clinic, we saw a lot of the same eager faces and some new ones as well. We split into teams and focused our attention on serving techniques. Pauli was especially good at bonding with the particularly shy kids! By the end of the clinic, they were all clinging to her arms and legs! We spent our afternoon at another school. This one was in town. We sang songs and did workbook exercises with the kids. Even if we could not communicate very well with them, we could do our best to be positive influences and instill confidence. Afterwards, we had just enough time for about an hour and a half of beach volleyball before the sunset! We headed down to the beach courts and played some pick-up with the locals. Maddie and Cara split up and played each other with some local players. Kendall, Brittany, and Kehau played some 3 vs. 3 with some people traveling from Germany and Romania. The games ended when it was too dark to see! After showering and dinner we went out for some desserts (crepes and gelato!), and then hung out in the hotel courtyard with Princeton alum and former men’s lacrosse player Brian Reilly, who is spending the year as part of Princeton in Latin America working with an organization called Communidad Connect. It was great to exchange stories and experiences both from Princeton and from our time in Nicaragua. These days were so exhausting, so it was really nice to sit down and chat!

Day 5: Day 5 was our last day coaching the volleyball clinic. We focused a lot on approach footwork and moving feet when passing. To tie together all the skills that we taught, we split into teams complete with names (los tiburones, las pumas, and las ballenas to name a few) and competed in some relay races. After camp, we got the opportunity to head just out of town to another non-governmental organization that supports local handicapped individuals by providing them with a source of income from their recycling foodstuff manufacturing bags into hand-sewn cross-body bags to be used every day and selling them. It was very empowering to witness the purpose and pride of the people who could participate in providing for their families. Then, the team reconvened for game time. We met the Nicaraguan national team at twilight at the sports park where we had held the clinics. A lot of our friends showed up for the match: kids we had coached in the clinics and taught in school and their families, those we had played some pick-up beach volleyball with the night before, and other members of the community. We were all touched that the friends we had made and people we had worked with came out to support, and the familiar faces made the game really lively. Again, local and festive music accompanied the match, but this time, we had to factor in the strong off shore winds! The match ended in some close sets, but Princeton came out on top in 4. We celebrated with another fantastic meal and a night out on the town with our coaches at Henry’s Beach Bar & Restaurant.

Day 6: On the morning of day 6, we all went on a sunrise hike up to the Christ of the Mercy statue at the top of a high hill on the north end of the bay. The views of sunrise and the smooth waves rolling over the long beaches were surreal. Later, we had the chance to go zip lining with “Da Flying Frog Canopy Tours,” a course of about 2.5 kilometers with incredible views of San Juan bay and Palermo valley. We even caught a few glimpses of monkeys…well, everyone except Kendall. We all made it safely to the bottom and were eager for our next adventure: surf lessons! We drove about 40 minutes south of San Juan through jungle and off the main road to a very large and private beach with a restaurant. We enjoyed fajitas and then got our lessons from the instructors who then took us out in small groups to make sure we stayed safe and helped us catch the waves. The waves had about 4 foot faces and seemed to roll on forever. It was just about perfect condition for beginners, although it wasn’t everyone’s first time! Brittany, Kelly, and especially Kehau could handle themselves well! The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging in hammocks or on the sand, taking naps under the shade of the trees, playing with the baby turtles that had just been rescued, and sipping on some fresh juices! It definitely an afternoon spent in paradise! Back in San Juan, we showered and headed across the street to another restaurant. This was a special night hosted by the restaurant and was emceed by Mara, the women who ran the first after school English learning program that we volunteered with. The festivities included a show of classic Nicaraguan dances, salsa lessons, a sampling of traditional Nicaraguan foods. Eventually, the dancers invited us and other volunteers up to the dance floor to learn the salsa (although Keith would like to make it known that he was the one who originally taught Brittany and Maddie!). After getting down the basics, the night turned into a night of dancing with other guests and locals (monkey-lady). It was quite an experience!

Day 7: Our day began with a long drive inland to Granada, which borders Lake Nicaragua and is situated at the base of Mombacho Volcano. We dropped our bags off at the hotel and made our way to the shore of the lake. Splitting into two groups, we boarded some canopied motorboats and headed off into the choppy water. Our guide informed us that around 20,000 years ago, Mombacho Volcano had erupted and created the thousands of islands that we spent our time exploring! Back on shore, we got lunch at a restaurant down the street from our hotel. Granada is a much more urban city, so there were a lot of shops and places for dessert to explore. Then, it was time for our final match against the national team of the trip! Again, with a lot of locals, families, children, and young adults alike, we competed. This time, however, Nicaragua came out on top in 4 sets. After the game, we had the opportunity to get pizza with the Nicaraguan national team. With Princeton sitting on one side of the table, the national team on the other side of the table, and those who were proficient in Spanish spread out among us (particularly players Ellie, Cara, and Kendall), we were able to have great conversations about backgrounds of playing volleyball, challenges and successes in learning each others’ languages, and experiences of growing up in our respective countries. It was awesome getting to view things from each other’s perspectives. After getting all cleaned up and making sure we had things ready for traveling home the next day, we decided to celebrate such an incredible and successful trip out in the town. Staying close to the hotel and together as a team, we danced and hung out. We convinced the DJ to play songs that we enjoy dancing to at Princeton, we met other people traveling through Latin America, and we commemorated our favorite parts of the trip. There was a lot to be thankful for and new bonds to be honored!

Day 8: We had the chance to sleep in (9am instead of the usual 7am!), and then we enjoyed our last serving of gallo pinto, eggs, fruit, juice and toast with the last scrapings of our jams. We really would miss these treats! We made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and after doing some last minute shopping (in an attempt to spend the little Cordoba we had left), we headed back into the states. It was obvious how eager people were to turn back on their cellular data to catch up with loved ones (via text, call, Instagram, Facebook, etc.)! The day of travel went smoothly, although we had to do a lot more trudging through the freezing cold on campus to get back to our rooms! We were all tucked into bed by midnight, feeling extremely blessed and grateful for such an amazing experience!

For more articles about the Princeton women’s volleyball team, please visit their page on GoPrincetonTigers.com.

About Brendan Vanackeren

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