McKeesport, Pa. – Growing up on the island of Puerto Rico, Penn State Greater Allegheny senior Volleyball Player Laura Vazquez Diaz (San Juan, Puerto Rico/Cupey Marina Montessori) has been surrounded by the sport of volleyball throughout her life. Her family has been playing the sport for generations and the passion that her family has for the game rubbed off on her throughout her childhood.
Vazquez Diaz got the chance to be up close and personal with volleyball from a very young age as her father, Daniel Vazquez, played volleyball professionally in Puerto Rico. Laura says she would go to the practices to watch her dad and got tips to help her improve her game and instill the love of volleyball into her life.
“I grew up basically watching my dad play volleyball all my life,” said Vazquez Diaz. “He played professional volleyball in Puerto Rico which is what got me into volleyball. I would go to his games, I would go to practices, and I was the little mascot of the team. I would get the balls for them and I would also run drills with them. My grandma played too and that was my inspiration growing up that volleyball was my life.”
Through the hours spent watching her father play the sport he loved, Vazquez Diaz developed a love for the game herself. As she watched her dad and his teammates go through their drills, she would try to emulate what she saw on the court. This caught her dad’s eye and he would offer to help her and show her how to perfect the techniques that she was seeing the pros do on the court.
“[My dad] would see my interest and try to help teach me,” said Vazquez Diaz. “One day I was watching them practice bump passing and I grabbed a ball and I tried to do it myself. And that’s when he saw my interest and he decided let’s give you classes and let’s put you into practices. He would also help me by going after practices or before practices and he would help teach me bump passes and other simple stuff because he saw my interest.”
Vazquez Diaz took these lessons passed on from her dad and incorporated them into her own game as she began to rise through the ranks. She played a couple of other sports including soccer and basketball, but they didn’t hold the same meaning for Laura as Volleyball did. Volleyball was the one sport where Laura said she shined and she carried on because of her love for the sport and the family legacy that it carried.
She continued her volleyball career at the high school level playing at Cupey Maria Montessori. It was a small volleyball program, but Vazquez Diaz enjoyed the experience and learned a lot. She was able to star for the Cupey Maria Montessori volleyball team starting all four years and, being a small program, it taught her how to deal with adversity on and off the court.
“My high school wasn’t the best at volleyball when I was growing up,” said Vazquez Diaz. “Our program was very small but it allowed me to shine a lot more. I started all my freshman year through my senior year and it was a great experience and a learning experience. That’s where I knew how to deal with adversity and versatility because I had to play a lot of different positions because we just couldn’t get the kids to play.”
Laura also credits her high school head coach Carlos Rivera for instilling in her a hard work ethic and showing her the tough love she needed to be able to be ready for the next level. Laura says that he really prepared her for the next level and helped her to better acclimate to the college volleyball lifestyle.
“My high school coach [Carlos Rivera] he was really tough, he believed in tough love,” said Vazquez Diaz. “And it was good because coming into a program like GA, where talent varies and competition is there, I think my high school experience helped prepare me to come into the GA program a lot.”
After playing her four years at high school, it was time for Vazquez Diaz to search to play volleyball at the next level. Even though there is about 1,700 miles between Vazquez Diaz’s hometown and PSUGA she didn’t have to look far to find her perfect match. PSUGA was already recruiting athletes in Puerto Rico and they found Vazquez Diaz’s online profile and came to see what her interest would be in coming to PSUGA.
Laura says that after her meeting with former PSUGA athletic Director Jim Chester, the decision to come to PSUGA was a very easy one. PSUGA had seen her online volleyball profile and knew she had a chance to shine as a Lion.
“I did my online profile on the NCSA website and the previous athletic director, Jim Chester, would recruit baseball players [from Puerto Rico],” said Vazquez Diaz. “Then he started realizing there were a lot of other sports in Puerto Rico and people stood out and he started suggesting to the coaches that they should start looking for players in Puerto Rico. He told Tracy [Gibbs] about it and she found my profile and she contacted me.”
Like many of the other Puerto Rico natives at PSUGA the transition was difficult at times for Vazquez Diaz. Being so far away from home, she would get home sick every now and then. However, thanks to the strong community of Puerto Ricans on campus, she was able to find a group that she could confide in when she needed help and that helped make the transition a lot easier for her.
“[Having the strong Puerto Rican presence] helps because whenever you are in a difficult situation it’s easy to go to them for advice because they were probably in the same situation,” said Vazquez Diaz. “Before I got here they told me when they recruited me that they have a big core group of Puerto Ricans, so I found them as my safety net. They understood me, they made me feel welcome, and I knew I wouldn’t be completely different.”
Vazquez Diaz’s Volleyball career at PSUGA started out with a bang as she was named a starter in her Freshman year and she was a big part of helping PSUGA make the PSUAC semi-final round. That freshman season and getting acclimated to the college lifestyle was one of Vazquez Diaz’s favorite memories of her time at PSUGA to this point.
“Freshman year making it to the semi-final appearance was definitely one of my best memories,” said Vazquez Diaz. “Never in my years did I think that would be possible because coming into college I thought as a freshman I wouldn’t start and it turns out I did. I didn’t think I would get much playing time, I made a semi-final appearance my freshman year and that was the break through that made everything worth it. All the hard work, being home sick, being far away, it made it totally worth it.”
Laura starred on the volleyball team in each of her four years on the team turning from upstart newcomer to team leader and veteran. Vazquez Diaz is a two-time All-Conference award winner and an academic all-American as well. This past season, she led the team in many statistical categories including Digs (102), Total Attacks (201), and Points (65.0).
Her volleyball career came full circle on October 23rd when the seniors and 2+2 players were recognized for their work at PSUGA. Hurricane Maria had just swept through Vazquez Diaz’s hometown and she thought her parents were not going to be able to make it to senior night. However, against all odds, they were able to be there to see their daughter’s last college volleyball game. For Vazquez Diaz it was a dream night and something she wouldn’t trade for the world.
“That night meant the world to me, especially because of the circumstances that happened in Puerto Rico,” said Vazquez Diaz. “I thought it wasn’t going to be possible [for my parents to be there]. Just having them there watching me play for the last time in a long time it just made me go back to my childhood when they watched me play my first game. It was a big flashback of all my time playing volleyball. All I could think about were all the good memories the tears, the laughter, the excitement, and everything. There was nothing I would have changed that night and it was the best night I could ever experience.”
That night was a perfect topper to an incredible volleyball career at PSUGA. It has been full of ups and downs in terms of team results, but Vazquez Diaz’s consistency and leadership has been something that has remained a constant throughout the years. Vazquez Diaz’s time playing volleyball at PSUGA may have come to an end, but the sport of volleyball and all of the memories she has made in the sport will stick with her always.