Cal State L.A. women's volleyball team rally around Puerto Rican teammates and coach

The Cal State L.A. women’s volleyball team was losing the match it had dedicated to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Sitting on the bench, outside hitter Karla Santos was unable to hold back her tears as she thought of her family on the island:

There’s no power and food is running out. Gasoline is running out. How can I help them from here?

Puerto Rican roots run deep on this team. Head coach Juan Figueroa and three of his players are from the island and also have family on the U.S. territory.

After Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico last month, leaving a trail of devastation, Figueroa and the three freshman players had a difficult time reaching family for days.

“I was desperate and crying because I didn’t know anything about them,” said Santos, whose family is in Manati, a coastal town.

“It was difficult,” said Jeshmarie Suarez, a freshman and biology major, whose family lives in the capital, San Juan. “I see the videos and photos, and it’s terrible.”

“Nothing was going to be the same,” she added.

Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, taking out the island’s electrical system and leaving residents without power. Desperation set in for Puerto Ricans as they began to run low on food, water and fuel.

“Seeing the news, seeing the damage that these hurricanes caused in our little island, it’s devastating,” Figueroa said. “And not being able to talk to family members for days is even harder.”

As the humanitarian crisis unfolded in Puerto Rico, the Cal State L.A. women’s volleyball team rallied around its coach and players.

“I love the support my teammates gave me,” Santos said. “I cried every day. I cried at practice, and every time they would tell me everything would be OK.”

The team decided to dedicate its game against Cal State Dominguez Hills on Sept. 23 to Puerto Rico.

The day before the match, Figueroa and two players were able to reach family. Figueroa, who grew up in Bayamon, said he first spoke to his father but couldn’t reach his mother.

Alejandra Negron, an outside hitter who is majoring in biology and whose family is in Bayamon, said she spoke to her mother and felt relief.

Negron spent five minutes talking to her mom, but the signal was not good.

“She said there were long lines to get gas,” Negron said. “At the market, they were letting groups of five people in, one a time. All the trees were gone and it was hot.”

Suarez learned her family was OK when she heard from her mother on Friday too.

Santos said she heard from her family on Saturday and learned their house had been destroyed by flooding.

“They cried,” she said. “It was hard for me. It was my house where I had lived all my life. But my family was OK and that was important.”

Santos said even after everything her family was going through, they told her to focus on her game, the one she was going to play in a few hours.

“My mom knew we had a game,” she said. “She told me we had to give it our all, their hearts were with me and that I should think positive.”

As the game started, things were not looking good. The team, which wore ribbons that were the color of Puerto Rico, had lost two of the five sets. They weren’t scoring and they were making errors.

“I was distracted in the beginning,” Suarez said.

On the bench, as they rotated, the girls said they kept thinking of their families and friends back in Puerto Rico.

“My family, my friends, the food, the water; they don’t have any. I was thinking so many bad things,” Santos said.

At halftime, Figueroa, tried to rally the team.

“In the locker room we talked about how hard we worked, how hard the week had been and how bad we wanted to win the game for our family,” the coach said.

At the start of the second half, it was Santos who ignited the comeback with one of the greatest performances in the university’s history. She recorded a season high of 30 kills and 26 digs, according to Cal State L.A.

The team would win three straight sets and the match against Dominguez Hills. The victory led the team to remain undefeated in California Collegiate Athletic Assn. Santos’ performance earned her CCAA Student-Athlete of the Week, the university reported.

“The victory meant a lot for us,” Negron said. “We were honoring Puerto Rico.”

“We never gave up, we kept pushing,” Santos said. “I was confident we were going to win.”

“We had to do this for Puerto Rico,” said Suarez, who plays the libero position. “We came back and we played like champions.”

Figueroa said the game was like no other.

“You see the whole team crying,” he said. “It showed how resilient the team has been.”

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

10 p.m.: This article was updated with word that Jeshmarie Suarez’s family in Puerto Rico was OK.

This article was originally published at 12:30 p.m.

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