A Long Path
Dec. 10, 2009
By Larry Watts
The path Juliana Paz took from Porto Alegre, Brazil to the volleyball court at the University of Michigan was a combination of hard work, opportunity and luck.
A member of the Gremio Nautico Uniao club team while attending Americano High School, Paz was facing a critical decision as she hit her senior year of high school. She would eventually have to choose between volleyball or school because volleyball is a professional sport and universities in Brazil did not offer competitive volleyball programs.
At the same time, Luciana Rapach, who was also from Porto Alegre, was in her freshman season playing volleyball at Iowa Western Community College. Her coach, Terry Gamble, told Alegre he wanted to add another Brazilian player to the roster for the following season.
"She (Rapach) had used a recruiting service to send out her tapes and that's how she wound up at Iowa Western," Paz says. "So she told one of her friends to put together a tape and send it out."
Rapach's friend put together a tape of a practice and forwarded it to Iowa Western. When Gamble watched the tape, it was Paz who drew his immediate attention. And when Rapach returned to Brazil for the holiday break, she contacted Paz and told her of Gamble's interest.
"I had never really thought about playing volleyball in the United States until she called me," Paz says. "I had no idea about the differences between junior colleges and Division I schools, but she explained everything to me. I talked to my parents and it was funny because my dad had saved a magazine article where it talked about playing volleyball in the United States and how you could earn a scholarship for your education. So I decided to give it a shot."
There was only one little problem. Paz did not speak any English.
"I knew nothing about Iowa or the Midwest," she says. "There wasn't much around Council Bluffs other than cornfields. It was quite a shock coming from a city of 1.5 million people to a city of 60,000. And then I didn't know any English.
"But everyone on my team was very helpful and it was like one big happy family, which made the transition a lot easier. Luciana helped me out a lot in translation, but I really didn't like the idea of not being able to express myself and not being able to understand what people were saying. So I pushed myself to the point where I didn't care if I embarrassed myself when I said something wrong."
Paz also pushed herself at an incredible rate to break down the language barrier. After ESL (English as a second language) classes her first semester, she had progressed enough to take regular classes in the second semester.
On the court, the 6-foot outside hitter stepped in and made an immediate impact while leading the Reivers to the NJCAA national title with a 60-4 record. Named the AVCA Two-Year Colleges Player of the Year, she posted 1,017 kills in her first season. When the Reivers finished seventh (58-5) in her sophomore season, she posted a school record 1,054 kills and was named AVCA All-American and Academic All-American for the second straight year.
As a successful coach at a two-year school, Gamble was able to place his players on some of the top volleyball squads nationally. He first called Michigan head coach Mark Rosen about Paz early in her freshman season.
"Because of all the transfer rules and getting my credits in order, I knew I was going to have to make a quick decision," Paz says. "Coach Gamble knew coach Rosen would be graduating an outside hitter when I was done at Iowa Western, but when he found out I didn't speak English, he said there was no way I could come to Michigan.
"But after I was named player of the year, coach Gamble put in another call and told coach Rosen, 'this girl is pretty smart and you might want to take a look at her.' So when it finally came time to decide, it was between Oregon State and Michigan, and I picked Michigan because of the academics."
It was a decision neither party ever regretted. Starting 34 of the Wolverines' 35 matches, she led her club with 411 kills, hitting double figures 22 times. Her versatility in playing the back row was evidenced in 299 digs (fifth on her team) and 33 service aces (second on the team and fourth in the Big Ten).
"We have limited substitutions in Brazil, so I have been playing the full rotation ever since I started playing volleyball at the age of 10," Paz says. "With only two years left to play, I honestly didn't know what to expect when I came to Ann Arbor, but I knew I had to take the opportunity and make an impact.
"You don't see many junior college transfers in the Big Ten, so I feel it's an honor to be here. Mark and his staff are not used to having transfers, so I wanted to prove I could do it.
"This has been a big adjustment for me," she added. "This is a big conference for volleyball. Every match, the players are more physical, the blocks are bigger and the serves are harder than at the levels I have played. But I've been getting more consistent with getting around the block and I have become a much smarter player."
According to Paz, the first things she was taught when she arrived in Ann Arbor were the rivalries with Ohio State and Michigan State, and the Michigan fight song. She has even learned to appreciate American football.
"All I knew before was they had to score touchdowns," she says. "But now I understand how it works. We have the weekend off when the football team plays Ohio State and I'm really looking forward to going to that game."
Paz will be attending the game with her parents, who came up to Ann Arbor for a surprise visit the last week of October and will be staying for a month.
"They're going to be here for my senior night (Nov. 20 vs. Minnesota)," she says. "They decided to make the long visit because I won't be going home for the holidays this year. They have both come up to see me play every year, including when we won the national championship at Iowa Western."
Paz has not decided if this will be her final season of competitive volleyball. She will have to return next fall to complete her degree and she plans to practice and help out next year's volleyball team.
"I guess we'll see how I feel when I come back and practice with the team next fall," she says. "Playing professionally in Brazil doesn't pay much and there's more money playing in Puerto Rico or Europe.
"I still want to go to grad school for international business. I would love to work for a company that deals with Brazil because I speak Portuguese. I may end up staying in the United States. You never know where life will take you, but I have never been one to turn down an opportunity."