He only knew of Penn State because he saw them on TV once.
He came to play for the Nittany Lions without speaking any English at all.
But after four years as a starter for the Penn State men’s volleyball team, senior Dennis Del Valle has cemented himself as arguably the best libero in Penn State history.
The Toa Alta, Puerto Rico native is the Lions’ single-season digs leader, having tallyied 386 in 2010 (he’s in second place, too, with 310 in 2009). He’s the single-match digs record holder with 25 coming against UC Irvine last year. And he’s the career digs leader with 1,198 and counting, the next closest is Ricky Mattei with 909.
Coach Mark Pavlik said looking at the entire package that is Del Valle — volleyball IQ, speed, quickness, the ability to control his platform and simply to make plays — it is apparent he has set the bar pretty high.
“He’s by far the best,” Pavlik said. “It’s not just because of his ball control skills but by the knowledge he has of the game and how he can put himself in positions where he’s just there.”
Though liberos wear a different color jersey in volleyball from the rest of the team to differentiate themselves, Del Valle shouldn’t need it.
It’s impossible to miss him on the court.
The libero is different from most other liberos in the nation. An enormous presence on the court even though he doesn’t sport a 6-foot-8 frame like his other teammates (listing him at 5-foot-8 is a stretch), Del Valle is constantly vocal. He’s always yelling to his hitters, telling them where to go and giving directions to his blockers, letting them know where they should be on each play.
In a sense, Del Valle never shuts up. But junior outside hitter Ryan Wolf said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“On every single play he’s talking,” Wolf said. “Even from the bench when he subs out and the middle’s serving, he’s still yelling from the sidelines. I’ve never heard any other libero talk as much as him, and it definitely helps us out.”
A starting libero for the Puerto Rican Youth National Team at the 2006 NORCECA (North, Central America and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation) Boy’s Youth Championship in the Dominican Republic, Del Valle made history by picking up the Triple Crown of defensive awards. He became the first men’s player and only the second player ever in NORCECA history to be named the Best Digger, Best Receiver and Best Libero of the same tournament. His team finished first in the competition.
Del Valle knew he had what it took to be the best libero in the nation right from the time he arrived at Penn State, but it wouldn’t be that easy.
He didn’t know the language. He didn’t know the country. It was a difficult transition for Del Valle, but volleyball is the same in Puerto Rico as it is in the U.S., China or Brazil, he said.
Del Valle learned about Penn State and the reputation that came with it. It may have been new and challenging for the libero, but he was ready for it. He came here because he knew he could prove himself, and he could excel.
But he wouldn’t go some place where he wasn’t sure he would be comfortable. He wanted to go to a place with a history of Puerto Rican talent and the resources that could help his transition.
“It’s not like I would go somewhere random where nobody, like I couldn’t have any feedback or anything,” Del Valle said. “But there’s been a lot of Puerto Ricans here, a lot of names.”
That wasn’t even the main problem for Del Valle. He had to convice his non-English speaking mother, who had never been to Penn State, that he’d be in good hands with the Lions, that she had nothing to worry about.
“She was scared. I was scared, too,” Del Valle said. “I was going to a country that I don’t even speak the language. So I was just trying to convince her that everything was going to be fine, everything’s going to be taken care of.”
All was made easier by the fact that Del Valle was coming to play for the Lions alongside someone he’d been playing with in Puerto Rico for a long while — setter Edgardo Goas.
Both were starters for the Puerto Rican Youth National Team at the 2007 Youth World Championship in Tijuana and Mexicali, Mexico and both started for the Junior National team for Puerto Rico.
Goas, whose father helped Del Valle adjust to the U.S., said coming to Penn State with that chemistry already built made for a smoother transition on the court just as much as it did off it.
“It’s pretty incredible having a libero playing with you for like four or five years before you come to Penn State,” Goas said. “The dynamic we have on the court is unbelievable. We don’t even have to talk to each other, we don’t have to do anything to know where each other’s going to be.”
Volleyball is such a team sport, Del Valle said. He always likes to think that whatever he does on the court is going to benefit everyone else.
He does the dirty jobs, he said. No one enjoys passing the ball, covering the entire court or playing strictly defense, but the libero prefers to have that control of the game. He likes to make everyone around him a better player.
And as Del Valle’s career as a Lion is in its fifth and final set, he said he owes a lot to his team and his school.
He has become a more mature person on and off the court, and when the serve floats and it’s prepped to be ripped over the net for the final time, Del Valle said he’ll be ready for whatever comers afterward. Though he doesn’t want it to happen just yet.
“I love it, I don’t want to leave,” Del Valle said. “These guys become almost like your brothers. You see them every day and you do everything with them. It’s been great. I can’t complain at all. It’s been awesome.”