May 12, 2022 - Many who are preternaturally gifted at any particular craft are often described as “born” to do whatever it is they came to do. Tiger Woods was born to play golf, Jordan for basketball, Federer for tennis, Mia Hamm for soccer. None of these cases, however successful they may have been, are true, in the literal sense of the word.
But Angel Dache was, quite literally, born to play volleyball.
On October 3, 1990, Dache was welcomed into the world in Havana, Cuba, the son of a former Cuban National Team player. From that moment on, he, like many others on the island country who were either genetically or physically gifted, was tabbed as a potential prospect for the Cuban National Team.
“You don’t apply for it. They pretty much track you when you’re a kid,” Dache said. “If you’re tall, they’ll reach out to you. Even if your parents never played sports, obviously they follow that track, and that’s not just for volleyball, it’s for every sport. They follow these kids, whether it’s boxing, baseball – if their parents played the sport, it’s just in their DNA.”
When Dache was 10, he was enrolled into an academy-style school in which, as he says, “all they do is eat, sleep, volleyball.” Such was his life for the next five years – eating, sleeping, playing volleyball.
“For five years in a row you say bye to your family and every week you go to school, some weekends you see your family if you’ve earned time, but if you don’t, you gotta stay in school,” Dache said. “All you do is play volleyball, train.”
He never would play on the Cuban National Team. In 2007, when he was 17 years old, by an extreme stroke of luck not far off from hitting the lottery, Dache was able to join his father in the United States, moving to Miami as an awe-struck teenager. He was transitioning from a country that, in many ways, is stuck in the mid-50s, where the cars are all antiques, food comes in rations, and everything is controlled by the government – and landing in one of the most modern cities in the U.S.
“As soon as I landed, just imagine, I thought people were [messing] with me, I went to pee and I didn’t flush the toilet, and the toilet just flushed itself!” he said, laughing at the memory. “I kept looking around. It was the weirdest thing.
“You can imagine the buildings, the nightlife, the beautiful people, it was just insanely crazy. I didn’t really even see the entire city. We didn’t have a lot of money. My dad didn’t have a lot of money to take me places. The little I saw was super different for me.”
But sports are a universal language. Different as Miami may have been from Havana, different as the Cuban academy was from Hialeah Miami Lakes High School, startling as the self-flushing toilets were, volleyball was the same. And Angel Dache was darn good at volleyball.
So good that the University of Mount Olive, a small, Baptist school in North Carolina, offered him to play as an outside hitter. Good enough for teams in Finland and Cypress to sign him to professional contracts overseas. But by the time his contract in Cypress expired, he had played an exceptional amount of volleyball. He had literally been born into a life of passing, setting, and hitting.
Perhaps he was finished.
“I just got tired of being away and decided I may as well play beach volleyball,” said Dache, who moved to Wilmington, North Carolina after finishing in Cypress. “Obviously I wasn’t thinking about what I’m doing now, traveling everywhere in the country, trying to qualify. I was just going to play local tournaments.”
But in 2016, a 19-year-old named Kameron Beans called. There’s an NVL in Columbus, Ohio, he told Dache. Want to play?
Dache did a quick skim of the tournament. He saw that the winner would take home $7,000. He also saw that Dave Palm, a former teammate on his high-performance team, was in the midst of winning a number of the NVLs, one of the best blockers on the fledgling tour.
“I was just looking at the winning money, because I thought I was going to win it all because Dave Palm and I played in rival high schools and the same high-performance team indoors,” Dache said. “I knew Dave pretty well and he was winning a lot of those NVL tournaments, and I said ‘I used to beat on Dave Palm, I can win this.’ I realized pretty soon that wasn’t the case.”
They qualified, a seminal moment for Beans, though, in the moment, Dache didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of what he had just done: In his first professional beach volleyball tournament, he qualified for the main draw.
“I thought it was just another tournament,” Dache said. “I didn’t know much about beach volleyball in the U.S. That was my introduction to my obsession now.”
The beach reinvigorated Dache’s passion for all things volleyball. Now he’s traveling across the country, playing on any surface save for indoor. In college, he was introduced to the grass at the annual Clash, chuckling at the prospect then: “I said ‘That’s a lot of money for just playing volleyball.’ At the time I was young and could jump pretty well and I said ‘Three on three? Nobody can block me.’ Fifteen hundred for first was the most money I ever thought about making. [Heck] yes, I’ll play that every time.”
True to his word, he recently finished second at the Clash, alongside Brett Rosenmeier and Nick Drooker. On the beach, however, he has become a force, “the Cuban Missile,” as good friend and fellow Carolinian Marc Fornaciari calls him. His serve is one of the best on the AVP Tour. Offensively, he has been described by a number of players as “unservable.”
Dache, of course, would never admit to such things. He’s far too humble for that, a trait, alongside his amicability and genuine friendliness, that has endeared him to virtually any volleyball player he meets.
You see, he wasn’t just born to play volleyball. He was born to impact the game in such a way as to improve it in multiple countries. Whenever he returns to Cuba, he doesn’t do so empty-handed. He’ll bring home nets, balls – anything Cubans could use. And they could use a lot.
“If you’re not on the national team, the conditions to play are sad. The balls are all [messed] up, the net, it’s just messed up,” Dache said. “I just gave them old yellow AVPs that I have here that I wasn’t using, and they were the happiest kids you’ve ever seen. They couldn’t stop playing with those balls. Meanwhile, here, if somebody brought it to a tournament, everyone would say ‘Who the heck is this guy? Take that away from the tournament.’ They might even hide it from him. But over there, they don’t discriminate. They play with everything.”
Likewise, Dache will play in everything. Grass or beach. AVPNext or in the main draw. Doesn’t matter to him.
Because Angel Dache was born for volleyball.
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew