By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When Adriana Gonzalez came to America from Puerto Rico, she was 13 years old and about 5 feet tall. She spoke very little English. It’s easy to see why she was nervous just in everyday life, much less trying to fit into one of the best girls volleyball teams in South Jersey.
But it didn’t take long for the little girl with the curly hair to become a team favorite, and her setting ability was the missing link Absegami was looking for to keep its championship tradition alive. Which is ironic, because in Puerto Rico she was a libero, not a setter. There was a lot of trepidation of how she would fit in, and she thought about quitting the volleyball team early on.
“It was hard for me to balance school and volleyball while trying to learn a new language. At the beginning, in my freshman year, I thought about quitting. I was like, ‘oh, my God, I can’t deal with this. I can’t understand anything.’ But then I started thinking that I might want to play in college, so I started thinking more about my future,” Gonzalez said. “It was difficult to learn English when I got here, but I did have my stepdad and coach (Kerry) Flukey helping me out, and I did have some Spanish-speaking friends, and they helped me out, too. So they all helped me through it. It was hard at first, but I got through it.”
Getting through it might be an understatement. During her high school career, the Glory Days Magazine girls volleyball Player of the Year not only became one of the most popular kids at Absegami, but also amassed more than 1,000 assists and led the Braves to the Cape-Atlantic League championship in three of her four seasons.
“I feel super excited. I wasn’t expecting to be player of the year. I’m proud of myself for making my coach and my team proud,” she said. “I came from Puerto Rico when I was 13 years old and I didn’t know any English, so I didn’t know what the coach was telling me. I had no clue I would make it this far.”
Gonzalez had some tough competition for POY from teammates Annalise Wagner and Olivia Clinkscale, as well as ACIT stars Angelique Yarrow and Alix Proctor. But Gonzalez was literally in on every play for the Braves and racked up nearly 500 assists as a senior to help lead Absegami to a 24-2 record, another league championship, and into the second round of the state playoffs.
“I wasn’t really expecting any of this. Volleyball in Puerto Rico is much different. I never thought I would come this far, be a team leader, have that many assists. I thought I was just going to be a regular girl playing volleyball and not get recognized so much,” she said. “Our chemistry was so much better this year and we worked as a team. We were just trying to make coach Flukey proud. All the seniors were just putting their 100 percent into every single game.”
Gonzalez said she credits her coach and teammates for helping her become the person she is today.
“My coach helped me a lot. She made sure I understood everything, and she was also my teacher in school, so that was a big help. I picked up on things pretty quickly,” Gonzalez said. “There aren’t any girls on the team who speak Spanish. There was a girl who understood some Spanish, but not enough to talk to me in Spanish, so I was just trying to pick up words here and there so I could understand (my teammates). That’s how I started trying to get what they were saying to me. My sophomore year was better, and it was good in my junior year.”
Ironically, one of the games Gonzalez said she will remember most is the Braves 2-0 loss to Wayne Valley in the state playoffs.
“To me, our second round playoff game — I’m not even mad that we lost because we worked so hard trying to beat them,” she said.
The crowning achievement for Gonzalez and her teammates was winning the CAL title this season, a year after Pleasantville shocked the Braves to end their string of consecutive championships.
“That was definitely one of our goals. We didn’t want anyone else to break our yearly thing. (Pleasantville) did it my junior year, and we felt awful,” Gonzalez said. “So, we really wanted it this year. The team worked really hard on our chemistry and how we play together.”