By Joe Arruda
It’s impossible to miss her.
She’s No. 6, the player who always sacrifices her body, making it look easy as she dives, right arm extended, and sends the blue and white sphere over the net. And then, jumping to her feet, she does it again.
When the team wears white, she wears maroon; and when she wears maroon, the team wears white.
She is the Pride’s libero. A defensive specialist.
As a freshman, Anagabrielle Sanchez worked her way to fourth in the Springfield College women’s volleyball record book for total digs in a season with 636. Now, she sits in the top five for digs in a career after just two and a half seasons.
“I know stats are important, but I think it’s what else she brings to her team and that relentless pursuit of excellence, to never let the ball be down,” head coach Moira Long said.
“One of the things that is most impressive about Ana is her desire to improve. She is never satisfied. I think she is constantly looking to get better, and she takes feedback very well. If she gets burned on a play she’ll look at me and be like, ‘No, no. That’s not gonna happen again.’ I love that response from her. I think she has high aspirations to go back to Puerto Rico and to play at a higher level as well, so I think that motivates her and that drives her.”
Hailing from Caguas, Puerto Rico, her main worries when coming to America weren’t in regards to her volleyball ability. Sanchez was not fluent in the English language, and had trouble communicating.
She moved to America in 2015, but did not enroll in school. Instead, she devoted her time to learning English.
Long turned to all of her resources to bring Sanchez to Alden Street.
A former player, Itza Nieves, a bilingual Puerto Rico native, helped Long communicate with Sanchez and her father. Recruiting a player while not actually being able to speak directly to them made for a very slow process. When Sanchez and her father came to Springfield for a visit, Long described picking them up at the airport and driving for 30 minutes without any real communication.
“She was (on her visit) and I was driving her back to the hotel. So now, she had spent the night with one of my former players also from Puerto Rico, Fabiola (Aviles). And nobody was in the car with us, and she doesn’t speak any English. It was very awkward, is what it was,” Long said.
A language barrier presents challenges for both parties.
With English being a fluent language for the rest of the team, it was uncharted territory for coach Long, who now had to devote part of her time to develop new effective ways to lead her team.
“When she came she had worked on her English, and her first couple years she was not really comfortable speaking and I think we just had a little bit of a language barrier,” Long said. “As much as I tried, I speak really fast, and I sometimes would forget that she maybe didn’t understand what I was saying. So, it was a challenge.
“I think with Ana, sometimes I forget (that she may not be able to understand). And even now, yesterday at the end of practice, I just asked a question and everybody was kind of scattered. I was like, ‘Hey can we go at 3:30 tomorrow because we’re gonna leave to get on the bus?’ And Ana was kind of across the gym and she like turned to Bridget (Walsh) and was like, ‘What is she talking about?’ And Bridget, I saw was like, ‘Can you be at practice at 3:30 tomorrow?’ And that was another moment where I was like, I gotta do a better job because she’s not standing in front of me and it’s not as clear, especially with an echoey gym. Everybody else got it, but I was like, ‘Man, be better Moira.’”
The Springfield College volleyball programs feature several players from Puerto Rico, and with all of them being able to speak Spanish, they can fall into a comfort trap within their group. It’s human nature where people with things in common tend to attract, especially within a culture to which they are unaccustomed.
“The first couple years she was, and still kind of is, a little timid because of the language. We also have a lot of Puerto Ricans here, so we would just be in our own kind of bubble, so she wouldn’t have to speak English a lot,” said Johjan Mussa Robles, a member of the Springfield men’s volleyball team and one of Sanchez’ good friends.
Springfield College is all about the idea of inclusion, and students will never shy away from sharing their experience as a member of the Pride.
For Sanchez, this was the reason why she found herself 1,662 miles away from her hometown.
“When I was a senior in high school, a couple of my friends played volleyball here on the men’s team,” she said. “They talked about how Springfield College’s women’s volleyball program was pretty good, so I decided to look into it.”
Senior Mussa Robles has a sister who played on club teams with Sanchez while they simultaneously grew up in Caguas.
“One of the best parts of being here at Springfield College is being here with Johjan, who’s been my best friend since I was 12 years old,” Sanchez said. “Thanks to him, I feel at home because we are like brother and sister.”
In her fourth year at Springfield College, and her fifth in America, Sanchez is becoming much more comfortable with her ability to communicate with others in English.
“She was timid in classes, she was afraid of meeting new people. And now we’re at the point where I see her, she’s completely changed. In a sense that she’s more comfortable, she is more outgoing, and just basically more engaged,” Mussa Robles said.
Long constantly preaches the necessity and importance of consistency, reiterating the core values of trust, communication and relentlessness.
“She has been very consistent, and she’s been consistent in ways that we need her to be, which is in service reception and defense, but also with her communication, and honestly she has taken on a little bit of a leadership role this year, which is just a really special thing to see her comfort level with our team and to be able to talk to our younger players and give them her experience and what she’s been through,” Long said.
Sanchez has worked her way from being a silent defensive force, producing record breaking statistics in her freshman year, to transforming now into a vocal leader as a senior.
“She has developed her English and now she is at the point where she is comfortable talking to anyone. Obviously she has an accent, and obviously there is stuff that we, me included, we don’t know how to say or say differently. But, you can see a change now and she is more comfortable with herself,” Mussa Robles said.
“She’s timid out of the court, but in the court she is fearless. She talks, she communicates, she gets angry, she does everything – but now she does it better.”
Photo courtesy of Daniela Detore