Photo by Lawrence Johnson.

Jennevy Santos has gone to great lengths to chase her dreams.

The 21-year-old from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, is a senior at Morgan State, a valuable team leader and defensive specialist on a Bears volleyball squad that should contend for a MEAC championship whenever such matters can again ascend to the forefront.

For “Gigi,” the pandemic has just been another obstacle to overcome on a long road from Bayamon through Florida and finally to Baltimore. She had to find the right fit at a couple of schools, including full scholarship aid, and she had to become more comfortable speaking English, all while working through a serious, initially problematic case of shyness.

Veteran Morgan State volleyball coach Ramona Riley-Bozier took a chance on the Palm Beach State College (Lake Worth, Fla.) transfer last year, and for a time, Riley-Bozier thought maybe she had made a mistake.

“Gigi wasn’t playing like the player we knew she could be,” the coach said. “Four weeks into the season, I sat her down and told her we needed her to run the defense, talking and taking over, which she wasn’t doing. She was so shy. She just broke down crying.”

Riley-Bozier realized there had been a failure to communicate, and the coach took it to heart. The 5-foot-4 Santos had the talent to make an impact, but something was holding her back. She hadn’t found her comfort zone. The Bears were 8-11 in October when they headed south on a road trip — to Florida.

There, Santos was reunited with her family, who had relocated to Kissimmee, Fla., so Santos could attend Osceola High School and the family could be closer to older sister Jorddalys, who was playing volleyball at the College of Central Florida. After that family regathering, things changed for Santos and the Bears, who went on a seven-game winning streak and won 10 of their last 12 games to reach the MEAC championship game. They finished with an 18-13 record, their best mark since 2006.

Santos can’t even explain why her game clicked, but she was able to help lead the Bears during their late-season run through the MEAC.

“It was just hard at first getting used to [being away from home],” she said. “The coach and the team were so nice, but I didn’t have my mom to talk to every day like I had before. We’re a close family and to be honest, I met so many new people from everywhere. I had never had that before. Everyone I knew was in Florida.”

Plus, being in Baltimore, a place she has come to love, wasn’t easy at first for someone who had never traveled north of central Florida. And when you’re uncomfortable with your own English-speaking skills, it’s like starting by serving into the net.

“English isn’t easy,” Riley-Bozier said. “There are 50 million words to say one thing. Like ‘hot’ is ‘lit.’ She understood English just fine but some of the subtleties make it tougher.”

The coach had noticed that Santos avoided phone conversations in the recruiting process, deferring to her father, Noel, who would call Riley-Bozier to answer questions or talk through issues. Once on campus in Baltimore, Santos wouldn’t go to any team functions without Bears manager Alyssa Belizario by her side. A Dominican Republic native, Belizario became Santos’ de facto interpreter, not an ideal situation in Riley-Bozier’s eyes when trying to mold a team leader.

Fast forward a year and Santos can’t wait to get back on campus with her teammates and take the reins of the Bear defense. She will continue online classes at the school with the rest of the student body once she returns to Charm City.

“I can’t wait to see everyone and get back to getting ready for this season,” she said.

The Morgan State volleyball team hasn’t been together since last March when colleges everywhere started sending students home. Riley-Bozier said the Bears’ only meetings have been “on the Brady Bunch screen” with Zoom calls. Morgan State will phase in on-court practices after athletes return in late September and see what happens.

“We all want to play but voices in the Power Five are the ones everyone hears,” Riley-Bozier said, “more than the MEAC. There might be a conference winter schedule and a championship around the end of basketball. That’s an option. I think we’re looking at everything. We might all get sent home, but I hope we stay and practice.”

The Bears are deservedly anxious. They have a team capable of winning their first MEAC volleyball crown since 2000. Along with Santos, senior outside hitter Tylar Roberson is a key returning piece, and there’s balance and depth throughout the roster. Newcomers Thea Hestnes (Norway), Gabriela Hiciano (Puerto Rico) and St. John’s State College (Fla.) transfer Kendal Hoges will provide immediate help. Alyssa Sampson, a freshman libero, could also push Santos, though the senior is up for the challenge, something that probably wasn’t true at this time a year ago.

That family reunion was all it took to reinforce her love for the game she has played her entire life and that has already taken her places she never imagined.

“She’s very, very close to her family,” Riley-Bozier said, laughing at her own understatement. “I knew she was homesick. That chance to see her family sparked her up. She was a different person after that and just played her butt off and we rallied around her. I think she finally felt a part of the program and understood we needed her to win.”

Santos was sometimes her own worst enemy. Her anxiety in speaking English was largely unfounded. She had already graduated from Palm Beach State with an associate’s degree, even earning All-Academic honors. Searching for a college to continue her education and pursue her ambition to someday work cybersecurity for the FBI, she first applied to every Florida four-year school and when no one in-state needed a defensive specialist who hoped to one day work in cybersecurity, she broadened her search, sending letters to approximately 60 schools.

Enter Riley-Bozier, who got a letter, watched video, had a scholarship and needed a talented, dependable libero. A 32-year coaching veteran, Riley-Bozier didn’t know it at the time, but Santos would change the way she recruits international athletes.

“I think more about what they’re going through,” she said. “I’m thinking I should send correspondence in English and in Spanish, maybe have an interpreter when we’re on the phone. You have to see it from their perspective.”

All’s well that ends well. Santos dug in and rallied. She was a two-time MEAC Defensive Specialist of the Week last season and led the team with 501 digs, the third-highest single-season total ever at Morgan State. She was second in the MEAC in that category and was just a completely different player — heck, a different person — down the stretch.

“You saw her dancing and laughing, cracking jokes, things she wasn’t doing early on,” Riley-Bozier said. “She was so much fun to be around and we were ready to give her even more responsibility in the spring. She trusts us and we trust her.”

Santos is particularly excited about another Puerto Rican player on the team (Hiciano) and the challenges ahead.

“I want to be a better player, a better teammate as a senior,” she said, not shying away from anything.

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