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BYU volleyball team gets bigger, better

Cougars add 6-foot-8 player from Cuba

PROVO — A very good but rather small BYU men's volleyball team got bigger and better — and just in time as the No. 2 Cougars play host to top-ranked and defending champion Pepperdine later this week.

BYU announced Monday the addition of 6-foot-8 outside hitter/opposite Yosleyder Cala, a former member of the Cuba National Team. He defected to the United States two years ago, made his way to Provo and has patiently worked at becoming proficient in English, gaining university admission and receiving NCAA clearance.

Cala's first matches for BYU are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday as the Cougars host Mountain Pacific Sports Federation foe Pepperdine at the Smith Fieldhouse.

"Anytime you can pick up a player like Cala, it's a good time," said BYU coach Tom Peterson. "He has the potential to be huge for us. . . . He's more than just a blue-chip athlete."

BYU (7-1, 5-1 MPSF) is coming off a five-game loss Saturday at No. 5 UCLA after beating the Bruins on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Waves (5-0, 5-0 MPSF) won at then-No. 1 Long Beach State last week.

In the AVCA Top 15 poll released Monday, Long Beach and Pepperdine swapped spots, with the Cougars staying at No. 2, just two points ahead of the No. 3 49ers.

For more than a year, whispers of "Cala" have circulated around the BYU volleyball program.

"I think other people are more excited to finally see me play," he said after practice Monday. "It's like, 'OK, finally' — but I was never worried."

A standout international player, Cala defected to the United States after an Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico in mid-January 2004, not showing up for a return flight with the team back to Havana.

His final match was the championship of the NORCECA tournament, as a talented but young Cuban national team fell in five games to the United States, which also earned the sole regional berth to the 2004 Athens Olympics. He was the fourth Cuban athlete to defect in a four-month period, with the exodus of Cuban volleyball players not uncommon over the years.

Initially residing in Puerto Rico two years ago, Cala was pointed toward Provo by a host of ex-BYU players who live on the island, including Ossie Antonetti, Joaquin Acosta and Hector Lebron.

Once in Provo, he worked a number of odd jobs to support himself while working on English equivalency exams and BYU entrance standards. He's since joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, turned down inquiries to play professionally in Europe for six-digit figures and honed his basketball skills — "that's my hobby," he says — by playing summer pick-up games against current members of the Cougar hoops team.

Cala concedes the system and the college game "is a little different," but he adds with his infectious smile, "it's still just volleyball."