On the OutsideIn Puerto Rico, Former Bear Angie Pressey Was a Star; On the U.S. National Team, She's an Unknown
Monday, July 27, 2009
She laughs about it now, but at the time it probably just seemed ridiculous.
It's June 29, the fourth day of pool play at the Eighth Women's Volleyball Pan-American Cup. On one side of the net is the United States-hosting the tournament for the first time ever-with its population of over 300 million. On the other is Peru, home to about a tenth of that.
And former Cal star Angie Pressey is standing on the floor of Miami's BankUnited Center, in red, white and blue, noticing that the Peruvians have brought more fans than the Americans can round up on their own soil.
It's like that for most of the tournament, even though the U.S. sweeps Peru on its way to a perfect record in pool play and a fourth-place finish.
"We were out-cheered, heckled in our own gym," Pressey says with only the littlest bit of bemusement in her otherwise typically cheery voice.
It probably seemed ridiculous to her.
Or maybe it just felt like coming home.
Puerto Rico, Pressey says, isn't all that much of a change from your run-of-the-mill U.S. city. It's a little lower on the socioeconomic scale, but pretty much everyone speaks English and the volleyball is still good, albeit slower in the set.
Public reception towards the sport, though, couldn't be more different.
When new U.S. Women's National Team coach Hugh McCutcheon invited her to an extended tryout with Team USA starting in late May, Pressey was coming off of an injury-shortened professional season with Toa Baja of the Puerto Rico Super League.
Moving to the island, she says, wasn't a culture shock for the reasons mentioned above. But on the short trip from Puerto Rico back to the States, she reentered a volleyball environment that's a world apart from the one in the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico actually has professional indoor volleyball, for one thing. And then there are the fans. They come out in crowds to cheer the home team. They heckle the visitors. They travel. Once, a little kid recognized Pressey-out of uniform-at the grocery store.
"I don't know if it's because they serve alcohol at games," Pressey quips before explaining that it is not, in fact, because they serve alcohol at games. The main island of Puerto Rico is no more than 110 miles long by 40 miles wide. You can drive across the whole thing in two hours. In such close proximity to everyone, the people identify strongly with their towns and, as a result, their teams.
"They genuinely care about us and they have pride in their town," says Pressey. "They have pride in us, through us.
"You're like goddesses. They treat you how you're supposed to be treated-as a respectable athlete. Not someone who's just playing around, just having fun out there. It's a serious sport."
That's what Pressey left in order to come back to the States, make Team USA's 14-player squad for the first Pan-American Cup ever held on American soil, and watch Peru take over the University of Miami's gym.
Don't get her wrong, though. She's not jaded. Even though Pressey has played for U.S. national teams before, she maintains that this experience with Team USA is "very different. It's definitely an honor. I felt like that before, but now more so."
And if there's one thing that Angie Pressey is not, it's a bleeding heart. It's just that she knows the score and she's realistic about it: In the U.S., the attitude towards volleyball simply isn't the same as it is overseas.
"(Other countries) don't have an NFL or an NBA or an NHL," says Pressey. "We have dominant men's sports that pull in a whole lot of money. We have so many outlets for entertainment that volleyball gets pushed down."
Twelve years since the New York Liberty and the Los Angeles Sparks tipped off the first game in the WNBA and 10 years since Brandi Chastain whipped off her Team USA jersey after her penalty kick clinched the FIFA Women's World Cup, women's sports still have yet to fully capture America's attention.
"Women's sport has come a long, long way, but we're still women and I guess we're seen as maybe not as athletic," says the 5-foot-8 hitter with the three-plus-feet vertical.
With volleyball, though, that doesn't seem to be as much of a factor. The U.S. Men's National Team won gold in Beijing, but the average American sports fan probably couldn't name a player. You might know Hugh McCutcheon, who coached that team before taking over the women's squad, but it's likely because of the tragedy that befell his family just days before he led the U.S. to an upset of Brazil in the gold medal match.
Still, Pressey believes that volleyball has a place in the American mainstream. And as her current situation would have it, she's in a good position to help give it a push in the right direction.
The U.S. Women's National Team has never won a gold medal in volleyball, but it did take silver in Beijing. And nearing the end of year one of this Olympic cycle, the 23-year-old Pressey is looking at the 2012 Games in London as a realistic goal.
"She wouldn't be here if that wasn't a possibility," says McCutcheon.
That Pressey is undersized as an outside hitter is something that McCutcheon accepts and doesn't seem to care about at all. Both his outside hitters on the men's team, he says, were small but knew how to play volleyball. Things worked out well for him there.
"It's a lot more about how they can play the game," says McCutcheon. "We're keeping track of what's going on and clearly Angie's getting it done, so she gets to stay."
But although Pressey acknowledges that the Olympics are a realistic goal and that, with the absence of a strong veteran contingent on Team USA, right now is an opportune time to be in her spot, she isn't developing tunnel vision.
"It's a goal, but I'm really just invested in what's happening in the process of getting there every day," she says. "It seems far away, but really it's not. Year two is about to start. But I'm really not thinking about that because if I take care of business every day, then the result will be good."
Time will tell just how good. Maybe it'll mean an Olympic roster spot. Maybe a memorable showing at the London Games will bring volleyball that much closer to becoming a mainstream sport in the States. Or maybe it will remain in the collective American psyche as, in Pressey's words, "something to do at a barbeque."
Maybe, someday, women who can jump three feet in the air and hammer a leather ball downward at devastating speeds will be revered by all Americans as athletes of the highest caliber and won't have to leave their families to seek employment overseas. And, for Angie Pressey, coming home won't mean what it does today.
Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]
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