Editor's note: In this article, the third in a series chronicling Guam’s student-athletes taking their skills to the next level, The Guam Daily Post will focus on the rising level of island sports and hear from several athletes have who put in the work and made the sacrifices to become members of the exclusive NCAA Division I.

With more athletes making the transition to the international sports scene, either joining the U.S. NCAA level or making the regional leap to schools in Asia, some here at home may be wondering what it takes to level up.

The island has seen a boom in clinics and training sessions, all aimed at helping young athletes hone in on their game. Coaches have continued to educate themselves, forming island cohorts and joining international communities to elevate their training methods and game strategies to reflect trends in their respective sports. There’s also been growth in trainers and gyms – all geared toward improving performance across the board for Guam’s athletes.

Armed with more than 30 years of coaching experience, Al Garrido, the acting coordinator for the Guam Department of Education’s Interscholastic Sports Association, has watched the the ebb and flow of athletes and the rise in talent and skill.

Garrido has coached nearly all levels of volleyball, including at the national level for the Guam women’s national team and a variety of varsity teams in Guam and in Japan. He is also a nationally certified accredited interscholastic coach and holds a certificate in NCAA Eligibility.

Garrido said the upward mobility and transition of athletes to the next level could be attributed to the combination of several components – all linked to exposure, training and education.

“The advancement of technology is now connecting the student-athletes with opportunities,” he said. “Prior to all of this, Guam athletes were not fully aware of what was out there, but with all that we have available at our fingertips, opportunities are just opening up for our athletes.”

The rise has given the next set of athletes a footprint to follow, he said, calling it a “trickle down effect.”

“Leaders like Matias Calvo, Jonah Hahn, Alschea Grape and Kyle Gaitan are succeeding at different levels of the sport,” he said. “Then you have Jalana Garcia, Destiny Castro, Joylyn Pangilinan and Kali Benavente being role models for others to follow.”

Another key component, he said has been the continued education of coaches and trainers across the island.

“Folks like the trainers at S.O.A.R., like Dr. Chris Fernandez and Jordan Tingson, and Dr. Claros at Crossfit GofMetgot are creating athletes that are smarter and stronger,” he said. “Our national team program (for basketball) stocks itself with a variety of the best coaches like Eddie Pelkey, EJ Calvo, Jin Han, Brent Tipton, Reggie Guerrero and Danny Payumo.”

Another factor, he said, could be the support of parents. 

“Now you have parents who are quietly believing in their children,” he said. “I say quietly, because they aren't ‘pumping' them up to be superstars, they are giving them enough to achieve the dreams.”

College athletes say it’s all possible

Hanna Rojas, who competes for Mount St. Mary’s University rugby, said it’s important young athletes take the initiative for themselves. 

She reached out to her coach, who helped her connect with another coach. From there, she was able to start the dialogue with a coach at the collegiate level. 

“My advice to students who have the opportunity to play collegiate sports is to take that leap!,” the junior psychology major said, adding it’s important to have the courage to talk about your dreams with people who can help.

Her teammate at MSMU, Mara Tamayo, did a lot of the leg work for college herself, applying to multiple colleges, working on her highlight videos and reaching out to coaches via email. She started her journey months in advance, all while balancing her academic load.

“It’s not scary being a DI athlete,” said Lavona-Rae Torres Aromin, another MSMU rugby standout, adding local athletes need to take that step.

“Go Guam! We have got to get our athletes up there because there is really not enough recognition for our athletes at all,” she said. “We have so much potential and we need to show more.”

She emphasizes the role coaches and families play in that decision, adding the “push” they give is needed.

“And if we push ourselves to take that risk because taking that risk is, honestly, the best thing I did,” she said.

Colgate University’s Mason Caldwell credits the resources he had when he was younger to his success at the next level. 

“That was probably the biggest thing, If I didn’t have certain people or coaches or programs I did when I was in high school, and younger, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to get this,” he said. “It’s been great, I love the atmosphere.”

The Guam advantage

Expect to grind, they said, adding the expectations of a college athlete are higher than that of a normal college student. It won’t be easy, the athletes say, and every person’s experience is different. But, they have a couple of commonalities that they hope will work well for future collegiate athletes from Guam. 

“I wouldn’t be able to give great advice because I am just one guy. But for me, what I wish I did, I wish I had prepared harder after I got into the school, that was probably the biggest thing,” Caldwell said. 

Caldwell stresses the academics in high school to ensure admission into college.

“Focus on your academics. We had recruits who would come and visit who were stellar tennis players but just couldn’t get into the school academically,” he said. “That was really tough to watch.”

Caldwell said Guam athletes have one advantage over athletes stateside. 

“I know a lot of Guam kids like to work hard,” he said. “Guam kids don’t like to lose. They like to win. They like to represent.”

That work ethic translates well if they keep at it, Caldwell said, especially against athletes who have always had the best handed to them.

“What Guam kids definitely have over those kids in the states is, a lot of those kids that play sports there are almost spoon-fed,” he said. “They go to preparatory schools; their coaches have state-of-the art facilities, and they have all these resources. 

“They’re kind of bred and nurtured to play college sports, but on Guam it’s more, if you want it, you go out and get it is what I’m seeing,” he said “You have to want it more than other people and fight harder.”

Becoming a smarter athlete

Alschea Grape, who played at Enderun College in Manila, is currently in limbo as he watches COVID-19 unfold in the Philippines. Slated to attend University of Makati his junior year, he’s working out on Guam and waiting to see if basketball or college off-island is an option amid a pandemic.

“As of right now, I do not have plans to return to the Philippines this fall for school. The virus has made it unsafe to return and basketball is no where near starting up again,” he said. “COVID-19 cases are still increasing each day in the Philippines. Basketball is a physical sport and involves a lot of contact so I highly doubt that the season will be back on time.”

However, looking back on his days at Enderun, Grape echoed Caldwell’s sentiments, adding it was important to keep your head down and grind it out. 

“People usually come into college ball because they were one of the best players from their hometown,” he said. “Most players, including myself walked into college ball thinking they know enough about how to play the sport to our best ability.”

However, that mentality was quickly challenged, he said.

“I learned that you can never know everything or be completely prepared for a challenge, especially at the collegiate level,” he said. “Playing on Guam set the foundation I needed for the sport, but I had to work every day, day in and out, 10 times harder for playing basketball at Enderun.”

Guam is full of talented athletes, Grape said.

“If there is anything I’d like to see more of in Guam sports, is seeing more of its young athletes try to pursue higher level of play,” he said. “I’d love to see the younger generation grow up to be hard workers and future athletes at the collegiate level.”

Looking back, there are a few things he would add to his high school training regimen that would have helped him at the next level.

“If I could go back in time to high school, I would’ve studied more film on my opponents, get extra shots up, eat right and much more,” he said. “College basketball has really taught me that the little things go a long way and it’ll show on the court.”

Echoing the Grape’s thoughts on the mental aspect of the game, MSMU’s Rojas stresses off-season training if you’re serious about leveling up.

“Even during the off season you are constantly working and training in order to be prepared to get back on the field or court,” she said. “I highly encourage you to study the sport that you play. Watch videos of teams and players and analyze how the team moves as a unit or how they move both offensively and defensively.”

A blessing and well worth the effort

All the athletes interviewed said they hope the next set of Guam athletes will be just as motivated to compete at a higher caliber and just as willing to share their experiences, laying the groundwork for another cache of Guamanians.

“Honestly, as intimidating as the competition sounds, it’s not that bad,” said Aromin. “You can’t treat it as something you have to be scared of, and you can’t treat it like people should be scared of you. You have to be welcoming and open to share your experiences as a Division I athlete”

“Starstruck and honored,” said Caldwell, describing what it means for him to be a DI athlete.

While in limbo, Grape continues to work his game, adding he’s blessed to have elevated his level of play.

“It’s an honor, I know only a few athletes on island who have the chance to play collegiately,” he said. “I’m truly blessed to be one them. It’s always a great feeling representing our island in a different country."