The cultural transition has been the hardest adjustment for Daly Santana. After coming to Minnesota to play volleyball for the Gophers, the freshman from Puerto Rico has had to get used to speaking English almost exclusively, missing her favorite foods and bundling up against weather that already feels cold.
It's a good thing, she said, that she hasn't had much time to think about it. With her big jump serve and her fearless demeanor, Santana already has become an integral part of a team ranked No. 14 in the nation entering this weekend's home matches against No. 9 Nebraska and unranked Iowa. The 17-year-old leads the Gophers -- and Big Ten freshmen -- with 48 aces, and ranks seventh nationally with an average of 0.49 aces per set.
Santana's mother, Magdaly Morales, took the edge off the homesickness when she cooked rice and beans and pasteles -- a tamale-like dish with meat and plantains -- during a recent visit. But already, volleyball has made Minnesota feel like a second home, just as Santana anticipated.
"I just had this feeling that I wanted to be here,'' said Santana, who is from Corozal, Puerto Rico. "The people made me feel so comfortable. I loved how they played volleyball with passion, which is something I always play with.
"At first, I was kind of scared. It's far from home, it's totally different and it's way too cold. But with so much stuff to do every day, I don't have time to worry about it. I'm so happy to be here.''
The Gophers feel the same way. Assistant coach Laura Bush, who occasionally recruits in Puerto Rico, got a tip that she should take a look at Santana. She saw a 6-1 outside hitter with an outgoing, energetic personality, who already was playing at the international level.
Santana quickly has become a six-rotation player. A confident attacker and consistent passer, Santana also reads the game well, Bush said. Among Big Ten freshmen, she is third in kills (2.26) and second in digs (2.53) per set.
It is her serve, though, that sets Santana apart. She adopted the jump serve a few years ago, because she lacked control with her previous technique. Mastering the jump serve, she said, is complicated and challenging, which is part of its allure. While Bush said it remains a work in progress, she lauded Santana's fearlessness in using it.
"What makes it unusual is that she's 17 years old and is doing it at such a high level,'' Bush said. "The confidence she displays in it, even when it doesn't end up where everyone would like it to end up, shows a lot about her competitiveness and her belief in herself. She just goes for it.''
She followed a similar instinct in choosing the Gophers. Santana was captain of her country's team at the 2011 Girls' Youth World Championships in Turkey, and she led Puerto Rico to a bronze medal at the 2010 North, Central America and Caribbean girls' youth tournament. In 2011, she was named to Puerto Rico's women's national team.
She made her recruiting visit to Minnesota by herself. When Santana returned home and told her parents about it, her excitement convinced them she had found the right fit. Though she was a little worried about adapting to a remote, unfamiliar place, her folks -- and two sisters who attended college in the U.S. and live in New York -- encouraged her to make the leap.
Head coach Hugh McCutcheon expects serving to be critical in the Gophers' match against Nebraska. Bush said that Santana can spark runs of five to seven points with her serve, and McCutcheon noted she is more consistent at home. "She can get back there and bomb it,'' he said. "It's not often freshmen can come in and have such a huge impact.''
Santana didn't expect that either, but she couldn't be more pleased. "I came with the mindset I was just going to do my best,'' she said. ''I'm really excited to be helping the team in so many ways. It feels really good to be here.''