It was 6am, and the sun was rising. On the streets and in the plaza of Cataño, joyous volleyball fans were still celebrating. And Courtney Thompson and her Lancheras teammates were out there with them.
“It was amazing,” Thompson says. “It’s the reason I decided to play in Puerto Rico.”
|Courtney Thompson (center) exhorts her team during the Puerto Rican professional championships.|
Thompson, the former University of Washington All-American, is now back on the mainland after the all-night Caribbean party. Next week, she’ll head back to Anaheim, continuing her four-year quest to be selected to the team representing the United States at the London Summer Olympics.
But, for a few more days, she’s relishing what it felt like to help win a professional volleyball championship in a country that understands and appreciates her sport.
“I had opportunities to return to the European leagues,” she said, “but—as corny as it sounds—I wanted to go where I could play for more than just me, where it was more than just a job. It was a very calculated decision.”
Thompson first signed with Cataño two years ago, for a team that had no history of winning. “Maybe the worst team ever,” she remembers. But Thompson and her teammates turned it around, leading the Lancheras deep into the playoffs that season.
In 2009, Thompson opted for the European pro leagues, where most members of the USA National Team play (and where star American outside hitters can earn salaries in excess of a million dollars.) Thompson, one of the shorter setters among the international elite, was overlooked by several teams, and signed with Zeiler Konizset. She promptly led her team to the Swiss championship.
This winter, however, her heart returned to Puerto Rico. “The Puerto Rican league begins in January, which allowed me to be home (in Kent, WA) for Christmas, something I couldn’t do if I played in Europe. One of my brothers is in the military and the other has just gotten married. We weren’t sure when we’d next get the chance to be together again.”
And even though the level of play—and amount of pay—is higher in Europe, Thompson longed for a chance to demonstrate her leadership. “As a setter, you’ve got to locate the ball, no matter where you play,” says Thompson. In Puerto Rico, she’d also get a chance to help a team play better than anyone expected.
Her Cataño team started strong, bolstered by fellow USA teammates Angie Forsett (Cal) and Jessica Jones (Minnesota), but struggled with injuries throughout the season. The team mounted an inspired charge throughout the playoffs, and shocked everyone by sweeping heavily-favored Caguas 4-0 in the best-of-seven Finals. Thompson—wildly popular for her on-court passion—was named Championship MVP. Fans in the packed arena swarmed the court and were ready to party.
“There were, like, 7,000 people waiting for us in the plaza,” said Thompson. “These are good, hard-working, mostly blue collar folks, and they are absolutely proud of their city. It was the first championship in any sport that the city had ever won, and they were ready to celebrate.”
With another championship under her belt, Thompson rejoins what is likely the best women’s volleyball team on the planet. The US National Team may have its best collection of athletes ever, including a bevy of great setters. Lindsay Berg (Minnesota) may have the inside track on one of two setter slots on the 12-person London roster. The battle for the second opening will be epic, featuring Carly Lloyd (California), Nellie Spicer (UCLA), Alisha Glass (Penn State), and, of course, Thompson.
“I don’t look like much, and it isn’t always pretty,” says Thompson, “but I expect to give it my best shot.”
As if she knows how to do it any other way.
- On April 19, Thompson will be at Washington’s Hec Ed
Pavilion at 3:30pm. She’ll participate in a scrimmage with the 2012 Huskies’
team, now in their second week of spring practice.
CLARIFICATION (11:00am, 4/19/12): Thompson plans to attend today's scrimmage, but will not participate in the drills.
- Next up for the US National Team is the Grand Prix competition. The 12 players on the London Olympics roster won't be named until July.