Three days of action-packed volleyball wound to a close Sunday at Seven Mile Beach as Cuba swept both brackets of the ninth NORCECA tournament to be held in the Cayman Islands.
Cuba, which also swept the first NORCECA event of the season in La Paz, Mexico, came out on top Sunday as a result of grit and dynamic skill. Lidiannis Echeverria and Leila Martinez beat the United States in the women’s bracket, and Karell Pina and Daisel Quesada outlasted Canada on the men’s side.
“It’s a nice place. It’s the second time I’ve been here. The last time I came, we got second place,” Pina said through an interpreter about an hour before the gold medal match. “The competition has been hard, and there are good players here.”
Some of the world’s best volleyball players were present in Cayman. Last year’s champions, Betsi Flinch and Kelley Larsen of the U.S., lost to Cuba in the finals of the women’s bracket. Two-time Olympian Francisco Alvarez of Cuba coached the victorious Cuban men’s side.
Jamie Broder of Canada, a former Olympian and a two-time winner on the NORCECA tour, partnered with Caleigh Whitaker for a third-place finish on the women’s side. Broder, who won the Cayman Islands event in 2013, said this has always been one of the standout locations on the tour.
“Cayman is always our favorite event to play, so we were so excited to be here,” she said shortly after winning the third-place match. “Bronze is the hardest match to play. It feels really good to come away with a win. We’re sunburned, we’re tired, we’re depleted. But it’s nice to end on a high note.”
Pina and Quesada beat Canada’s Maverick Hatch and Garrett May in an entertaining men’s final, and another Canadian team – Aaron Nusbaum and Ryan Vandenburg – lost to USA’s Mark Burik and Bill Kolinskie in the third-place match. Burik said that the Cayman Islands have long held a reputation as the best stop on the NORCECA tour, and he was thrilled to experience it in person.
“We said if we only get one tournament on the NORCECA tour this year, we’re so happy that this is the one,” he said after winning the third-place match. “You always want first, so we’re a little upset at how we performed in the semifinal. But we’re proud of the way we performed at the bronze medal match. We took down a good Canada team and we had to fight hard. Shoot, we had to fight real hard.”
The first day of the tournament was affected by heavy winds and rain, but the conditions were sunny and perfect for the final day of competition.
“The first day was a little challenging for us,” Broder said of the weather. “We train indoors in Toronto right now, so it was actually our first day outside as well. The wind was not our friend that day. But I think we kind of learned as we went along each match, and today we kind of dialed it in.”
The Cayman national team finished 12th out of 12 teams in the men’s bracket, but fared a little better on the women’s side. Cayman B – featuring Taylor Burrowes and Ileann Powery – finished in eighth place, while Cayman A, consisting of 15-year-old Marissa Harrison and Stefania Gandolfi, finished 10th.
Harrison, the youngest player in the tournament, flew in Thursday from California and hit the ground running on Friday. She said she was encouraged by her performance, considering it was her first time playing with Gandolfi, and she was just honored to be in such elite company.
Harrison has already verbally committed to play beach volleyball at Florida State University, and she got to meet with Team USA’s Jace Pardon, an alumna of that program.
“It was really fun, and especially just to meet all the people,” said Harrison. “It was such an amazing experience. I’ve never met so many of these people from different parts of the world. I made some new friends, definitely, and it was just overall a great experience and great competition.”