Nov. 30, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
Click here to receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week. SEATTLE - If fate has a heart, Jenni Nogueras is about to lead the Huskies on a deep run through the NCAA volleyball tournament.
The redshirt sophomore setter has emerged this season from the worst tragedy of her 20 years to become a key to Washington's quest for its second national championship.
Friday afternoon, six weeks following the death of her father, her inspiration and her strength from back home in Puerto Rico, Juan Nogueras' youngest child will play in the first round of the NCAA tournament. She will be setting against Western Michigan in Minneapolis.
"This season has been incredibly hard, in so many ways," Nogueras told me Tuesday as we sat in the first row of baseline seats inside empty Alaska Airlines Arena.
Nogueras entered this season with the goal of winning the starting setter's job that eventually went narrowly to Evan Sanders, a senior transfer from Colorado State. She had already watched behind Jenna Hagglund the previous two seasons.
In September, volunteer assistant coach Tom Murphy cornered Nogueras and told her, "The team that wins the national championship will be the team with the best setter. And the team with the best setter will be the one having the setter that works the hardest."
"You've got to ask yourself," Murphy told Nogueras, "have you been working harder than any setter in the country?"
At that moment Nogueras re-dedicated herself to her sport.
"There were two options," she said. "Either work harder. Or quit."
"And," she added with a scoff, "quitting is not an option."
In revered coach Jim McLaughlin's program, hard work pays huge dividends. Eventually, McLaughlin began noticing how well senior, All-America-caliber middle blocker Bianca Rowland clicked with Nogueras as her setter in practices.
In mid-October, McLaughlin scrapped his usual, 5/1 arrangement and inserted Nogueras into the lineup in an unconventional, 6/2, two-setter scheme that alternated her and Sanders equally. Nogueras began entering every third substitution rotation with Rowland, with Sanders and middle Lauren Barfield replacing them in kind.
By this time, Nogueras was three years into her odyssey from Puerto Rico to UW.
"Finally," Nogueras said of McLaughlin's change to the 6/2, "I got my break."
The switch began Oct. 14 at California, and the Huskies didn't take to it smoothly. They lost in four sets to the team that eliminated them from last season's NCAA tournament one match short of the Final Four. But Rowland hit well with Nogueras setting for her.
The next day, Nogueras was preparing to play at Stanford when her phone rang. It was a cousin from back home in Puerto Rico telling her that Nogueras' father was likely to die in a matter of days from pancreatic cancer. Nogueras had known her father had been sick since March, but she had no idea his condition had deteriorated so rapidly.
It was the second family tragedy in as many seasons for a Huskies volleyball player. In September 2010, then-senior Becky Perry briefly returned home to Texas after her older sister Tiffanie became a victim in an apparent murder-suicide inside the apartment of her former boyfriend.
Nogueras' mother, Emily "Stella" Seilhamer, didn't call Jenni that October day when her cousin did "because she's my mom and she's not going to tell me anything before the game," Nogueras said.
Alarmed, Nogueras called her mom instead and asked if she needed to fly home from San Francisco. Her mother said no and assured her that her father had stabilized under the care of the hometown hospital.
So Nogueras played that night at Stanford. She had a team-high 14 assists in a three-set loss.
The Huskies flew back to Seattle on Sunday. On Monday, Oct. 17 Nogueras' phone rang again.
It was her mother with a clear, chilling directive this time: "You have to get home."
Nogueras was on one of the next planes bound for Puerto Rico.
"At this point, I'm doing really well in the season. I've picked up my game. Then this happens. There was just a mixture of emotions," she said. "It's incredible how your mind works. Because I was like, `Wow, tough decision' - not a tough decision in that I knew what I had to do, to go back home, but then I was leaving so much back here, too."
She spent much of the longest flights of her life in silent prayer.
"I didn't know what to think. I didn't know should I pray to keep him alive? Or should I pray for him not to be in pain?" she said.
"At one point it was, do I pick the selfish choice? Or be selfless and have him go in peace?' It was really amazing, how your mind works."
Her older brother Kelly picked her up at the airport in Puerto Rico. Their sister Michelle, who played volleyball at Saint Leo University, a Division-II force in Tampa, Fla., had arrived a couple of hours ahead of Jenni. They were coming to see Dad one last time.
When they got to Hospital Menonita de Cayey, their father had lost consciousness. One side of his face drooped, the result of a stroke. He had lost weight. He was pale.
"It was shocking," Jenni said. "It was truly amazing, because I had prepared to see my dad."
She had promised herself on the flight home she wouldn't cry. She had been so strong through the phone calls and conversations with her family in those last days that her brother had admonished her on the ride from the airport to the hospital for "being too calm." She said it was her way to let her family know they didn't have to take care of her, that she could handle the trauma.
"(But) he had deteriorated. It was a shock," she said of her father in that hospital bed. "He was not the person I remembered."
She said she was stunned for "about 2.5 seconds. Then it was, `This is your dad. Let's go.'"
She gave him a kiss on the forehead. He remained unconscious.
"The image I have of my dad is a strong image. He was 69, and he walked around like he was 30," she said. "My mom and I would be behind him tired, and my dad would be sprinting all the way."
A MAN, HIS DAUGHTER AND HIS MUSIC
Dr. Juan Nogueras was a professor of psychology at the Universidad de Carlos Albizu in San Juan. He got his Ph. D. from Penn State University, which is where he met Jenni's mother. Stella Seilhamer teaches English at universities and high schools in Puerto Rico.
Juan Nogueras also played guitar and he liked to sing. Make that, he loved to. A few years ago he reunited a band that had been founded in the early 1960s, La Tuna de Cayey, but had disbanded as Nogueras pursued that doctorate degree and raised a family.
A few years ago, he was at the funeral of one of La Tuna de Cayey's founders when everyone began singing the group's old songs. Papa Nogueras decided then to lead the reformation of the band, which his daughter says is "kind of a big deal back in Puerto Rico, especially at Christmas time. They play a lot of what would be like Christmas carols here."
"He was always writing music, being in the band. Just always a happy kind of person," Jenni said. "Always positive. Always happy."
The re-formed band became the bond that inspires Jenni to this day.
Her father asked her to sing in the group for a few years while she was in high school. She eagerly accepted, even though she said, "every other person in the group was, like, three decades older than me, maybe more."
She and her father wrote songs and practiced together on his spare hours.
Six weeks after his passing, it strikes Jenni as the time of her life.
"I am so happy that happened," she said. "I got to see my dad in what he liked to do the most. It is amazing how much he enjoyed music.
"Even at the funeral, the best image I had of him was him playing guitar with a smile on his face. At a show, we'd be playing, and I'd look at him and he'd have this smile on his face. It looked like an innocent child's smile. Like, he's just having fun. He didn't care if people were dancing well or not, or if we got the exact note. He was just like, if it sounds good and people are enjoying us hearing us sing, he'd be having so much fun.
"And it was a long shot. I mean, who in their right mind decides to go back and re-make a group that was alive 40 years ago? But I am so happy he did it, because he had so much fun doing it."
NOGUERAS' `BIGGEST BLESSING'
Jenni's dad never did get to speak to his daughter in that hospital room in Cayey last month.
As the first night stretched past 1 a.m., the options for rest for the Nogueras family at the hospital amounted to one pseudo-sofa and some hard, upright chairs. So the kids insisted on their mom taking the one sofa-like chair to get some rest while they went home for a few hours. They were to return in the early morning.
About an hour after they got home, Mom called to say Dad had passed away.
"I was holding his hand the whole way through. He was never alone," Stella told her grown children that night. "I kept talking to him. I had heard somewhere that the last thing you lose is your hearing. So I told him it was OK. `Your kids are strong, like you. It's going to be OK.'"
After the kids rushed back to the hospital, their dad's doctor approached them.
"He waited for you," the doctor said. "He waited for you to be ready."
Jenni calls that "the biggest blessing I could have."
"At this point, I honestly think that everything was a blessing," Jenni says. "I know a lot of people will think, `Hey, your dad died. How is that a blessing?'
"It was gradual. It was long enough for us to prepare for it. It wasn't sudden. It wasn't like I got a phone call that he got in a car accident. Yet it wasn't too long where he was fighting for five years. I don't think that was a coincidence.
"The fact that my sister and I could make it there in time, that wasn't a coincidence, either."
Her mother has told her that the reason she called Jenni to get her home from Seattle that Monday in October was because Jenni's father had finally said he couldn't fight on any longer.
"My dad's a fighter, you know? That's where I get my fighting spirit. That's where my sister gets it. For him to say I can't fight it any more is because the situation was bad."
"A PRETTY SOLID KID"
Hearing all this, as Nogueras sat in the empty arena with her white team practice shirt and black shorts following another hard practice, I felt compelled to confirm her age.
I couldn't believe I was hearing such perspective and strength from a 20-year-old redshirt college sophomore.
Nogueras was flooded with support and well wishers upon her return to UW following her father's death. Becky Perry texted her, asking if she needed support. Just that small gesture meant the world to Nogueras.
Her coping mechanism? Diving even harder back into volleyball and the Huskies' drive for another national title.
"I've seen her family. I've seen her parents. I know how mature she is," Jose "Keno" Gandara, the assistant coach who found her for Washington, told me. "It doesn't surprise me how strong she's been.
"And I think she's gotten better since (her dad passed), to be honest.
"Yeah, she's a pretty solid kid."
She had a 3.93 grade-point average in high school. She earned scholarship offers from some of the finest academic schools in the U.S., but ones with smaller volleyball programs -- Fordham in New York, Tulane in New Orleans, the University of Miami.
"I was looking at my options and I was like, `Well, Washington's off. Too far away. Too cold. Too rainy,'" said the Caribbean native.
But her father, ever strong, insisted weather and distance were not going to block a prime educational and athletic opportunity for his youngest child. And, as Jenni says, the Huskies "were the first ones to call me, the first day you could call for recruiting. They seemed really interested."
"Finally, I came up here to visit and I completely loved the atmosphere, the university, the teammates," she said.
Now, three seasons later, Juan Nogueras' steely, youngest child holds a key to the Huskies' postseason. How well she continues to set for Rowland will largely determine how successful their unique, 6/2 arrangement becomes in this NCAA tournament.
"It's a challenge, definitely. I want her to do well," Nogueras said of Rowland. "She wants to be a first-team All-American. That's her goal. And that's mine, too, for sure."
She realizes her mother has an even bigger challenge right now without her husband. There are decisions on whether to sell the family home, whether to move.
Now, more than ever, Jenni Nogueras is relying upon her independence derived from her three years traveling to Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere as a teenager on Puerto Rico's national team.
"For sure, I do get homesick," she said. "But I always have a goal in mind, and I know this is my best option. It feels right. I feel like I am doing something good for my future. I am getting a good degree. I am at a great university. I am doing something very few people from home get to do.
"Yeah, it's hard and there are homesick times and I call my mom and talk to her for three hours - but I've never felt I wanted to go home or I wanted to quit.
"Even this season -- incredibly enough."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.