NASHVILLE — For four members of the Tennessee State volleyball team who are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the program has provided a new family.
Assistant coach Vicmari Cockrill, graduate student Gina Rivera-Ortiz, senior Sofia Garcia-Guerrios, and junior Alondrah Santana-Rodriguez are from Puerto Rico and have been staples of the program.
This year, transfer Johanna Alcantara from the Dominican Republic has joined the team. Each traveled to America to start their collegiate careers but have found themselves embarking on a new kinship where they are bonded by the game.
During what’s now Hispanic Heritage Month, an annual celebration that reflects on the contribution and influence of Latinx and Hispanic communities. The athletes say they hope to give back to and celebrate the country that has given so much to them.
Julia Pierson came to TSU in 2016 from Texas and starred on the volleyball team until 2019. She played at TSU with Rivera-Ortiz, Garcia-Guerrios, and Santana-Rodriguez. She is now coaching at Maplewood High School. Her grandparents came to the United States from Mexico. Knowing where she’s from and being proud of it, was a significant part of her childhood. She respects and is thankful for the way TSU embraces different cultures.
“We have girls to come here from all over,” said Pierson. “We all mesh and that goes with the culture that volleyball brings. As far as being an HBCU, a lot of times the international girls don’t understand what that means. They get here and enjoy the experience. We embrace everybody with open arms. If you look at the roster you can see how culturally diverse, we are. I can bring my team or my nieces to a game here and they can see someone that looks like them. That is important to me.”
Cockrill played for the Tigers in 2009 and 2010. Fellow Puerto Rican Yamari Padilla both transferred in at the same time, but they didn’t know each other. They grew a bond and are still best friends to this day. Cockrill led the team in hitting percentage both years she played. Being far away from home can be tough, but the current group has acclimated well. Partly because of Cockrill’s presence.
“I got here in 2008 and I love it here,” said Cockrill. “I graduated in 2011 and have been here ever since. Having these ladies follow in my footsteps is awesome. I was shy when I got to TSU. I didn’t have a coach here that could relate. I am happy that I can make their stay here easier.”
Last season, Rivera-Ortiz broke the school record for career digs. Her effort in diving on the floor and hustling to keep the ball alive has not gone unnoticed. She has been named the OVC Defensive Player of the Week for two consecutive weeks. Her accomplishments have made her a Tiger fan favorite.
“I feel great that I can be so far from home, not have my family and compete out here, “said Rivera-Ortiz. “I feel part of the community here. I knew when I committed here that it was a family environment. Vicmari being here gave me a lot of confidence. Nashville is diverse. TSU is also diverse, so it makes me feel comfortable.”
For Garcia-Guerrios, Hispanic Heritage Month helps her to remember where she comes from and who she is. Her pride stems from her upbringing. To her, having so many teammates that share the same culture is important. She also enjoys teaching her teammates how to speak Spanish.
“We are like sisters,” said Garcia-Guerrios. “We understand many things. It makes sense more of how it is back home. Our teammates want to know what we are saying so we teach them which is fun. Coach Vic recruited me. That was one of the biggest reasons that I chose TSU. Also, Nashville is a beautiful city with so many things to do.”
Santana-Rodriguez has family in the Nashville area. Her aunt and uncle try to make all the home games. On weekends, they invited the players over for traditional Puerto Rican cuisine. She and Alcantara are making their mark as players that Head Coach Donika Sutton can count on. The pipeline started by Cockrill looks to be in good hands.
“I am very proud of all of them,” said Cockrill. “They are making a difference on the team. They all are hard workers and that makes the whole team better. Players want to come here because Nashville is a nice city. I hope the tradition continues.”
Courtesy: Tennessee State Athletics