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Before IU volleyball, Paula Cerame’s rise as a leader began in Puerto Rico

Emily Fitzner carried a duffle bag into Wilkinson Hall’s locker room on Oct. 2 minutes before Indiana took the floor against Penn State.

Eighteen black bows. That’s what IU’s players saw as they gathered around the bag. Fitzner handed out a bow to each player, one by one.

Hoosier players had seen a single black bow on the court before, exclusively worn by IU volleyball libero Paula Cerame at the Hoosiers’ opening scrimmage in August. In the past, Cerame often tied the bow in her ponytail, paired with a blue and orange uniform in the O’Dome in Gainesville, Florida; but never paired with a cream and crimson uniform in Bloomington.

That all changed on Oct. 2 when No. 14 Penn State traveled to Wilkinson Hall for a matchup against Indiana.

(Photo: Eden Snower)(Graphic: Max Wood)

The Hoosiers took to the court dressed in their standard crimson tops and black bottoms, but this time with an added wrinkle: Cerame’s black bow.

“Everyone asked why I wore it,” Cerame said. “If I’m being completely honest, we don’t get the chance to wear earrings or do our hair. It’s the only thing that makes me feel girly.”

This was only the sixth home match of the season for Indiana, but Cerame’s presence was already emanating through her teammates. If you knew her, though, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, Indiana isn’t the first school Cerame left a permanent mark at.

She’s always been on the go, chasing her volleyball dream. Journeying from country to country, city to city and university to university, Cerame has seemingly left an impression everywhere she’s been — one black bow at a time.

The city of Gainesville is often heralded for its majestic butterflies and colorful birds that flutter in the breeze. It was there, playing at the University of Florida, where Cerame got her start. But after three seasons with the Gators, Cerame was in search of something new. A fresh start. A new challenge. A different location; looking to hitch a ride on a breeze of her own.

Then, IU head coach Steve Aird called.

“My connection with Steve was super natural,” Cerame said.

But the Big Ten is unlike anything Cerame had experienced while playing in the Southeastern Conference. Currently, Purdue, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin are all ranked in the Top 10. The SEC features just three teams ranked in the top 25 — Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida.

Naturally, success often came easier to Cerame against weaker competition in the SEC, but as she transitioned to the mighty Big Ten, Cerame said, she now must look at every match like it’s the national championship.

Arriving in Bloomington amidst Aird’s total rebuild of IU’s middling volleyball program, while playing such a key position such as the libero, Cerame had to quickly put on her authoritative cap with the Hoosiers.

Since arriving ahead of the 2021 season, Cerame has been able to guide IU’s young, inexperienced team — one with four freshmen and eight newcomers — with leadership and reassurance. Despite Indiana’s underwhelming 8-12 record this season, Cerame hasn’t backed down from a challenge.

“Playing the role that some people played with me, just giving back in a way,” Cerame said. “Because at some point I’m going to be gone, so they’re going to have to do the same thing with the freshmen that they’ll lead at some point. It’s a teaching moment for them, too.”

Black bows will likely remain a constant at Wilkinson Hall, but the significance of their origin goes well beyond the confines of the volleyball gym.

***

At 13, Cerame wandered into a nearby country club in her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

In that country club, she played every sport imaginable with her friends. Tennis. Soccer. Basketball. Volleyball. You name it, she’s tried it.

Paula playing tennis in Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy of Paula Cerame)

But Cerame never anticipated that she’d have to choose one of them that day, not just to play but to pursue for the rest of her career.

“My tennis coach sat me down, told me things were getting really competitive, and asked me to choose,” Cerame said. “I was an innocent kid, so I was like, ‘Hmm, volleyball’s more fun, it’s a team sport,’ so I just went with that.”

Sitting on Puerto Rico’s Atlantic coast, Cerame was raised around vast fortresses with sweeping ocean views and the baby blue La Fortaleza mansion, amongst many other colorful Spanish establishments appearing throughout all of old San Juan.

Beyond the city’s rich culture and tradition, it might have been the cherished Puerto Rican values of family and togetherness Cerame was raised upon that prompted her to choose volleyball over tennis, considering the team element.

As a young girl, the only thing Cerame was accustomed to was family. Hominess. A big circle of everyone knowing everyone, blood-related or not.

Walking around her tight-knit neighborhood she knew everyone, and everyone knew her.

“Growing up in that environment always made me look at people like ‘If you’re my friend, if you’re my teammate, you’re a part of my family,’” Cerame said. “If you’re ever over at my house, I’ll treat you like you’re my mom or dad.”

The Cerame family — (from left to right) Paula, Gonzalo, Frances, Jose. (Photo courtesy of Paula Cerame)

These principles followed her to the states when she moved to Boca Raton, Florida, at 13. Coming from an athletic family, the transition to American sport was a natural fit. Her father, Jose Cerame, played volleyball at Ohio State and several of Paula’s cousins played volleyball at George Mason, Penn State and Texas.

Competing in collegiate volleyball was invariably in Cerame’s future. She knew she would follow in her relatives’ footsteps one day.

The move to the states and to American sport didn’t necessarily force Cerame to change anything about herself or her approach playing volleyball, even though Cerame said American volleyball is much faster. Even while living in San Juan, Cerame played the game with as much speed and rigor as an American player.

The competitive side of Cerame was always in her. Playing at the level of an American kid was repeatedly ingrained by her father. He constantly demonstrated and fed her the skills and fierceness needed to succeed in NCAA volleyball from a young age, virtually bringing that side of her to the forefront when she moved to Florida.

“In Puerto Rico we played just for fun,” Cerame said. “But I always knew I wanted to go beyond ‘just for fun.’”

Many people might regret leaving their home country, but Cerame didn’t.

As she watched her Puerto Rican relatives thrive and live out her own dreams in the states, Cerame didn’t hesitate to leave San Juan. Part of her parents’ departure was because she had much higher chances of getting recruited if she lived in America, and that was her family’s objective.

The move not only brought Cerame closer to her dream, but added more members to the large family she already had. While she may not reside in the place where her journey began, the connections she’s made along the way have followed her throughout.

“If I grab the phone, if I ever need anything from anyone at Florida, in Puerto Rico, here, I can be like ‘Hey, I need your help,’ and someone will always be there for me,” Cerame said.

Tony Quiles, Cerame’s first ever club coach in Puerto Rico, moved to Evansville, Indiana, in 2015.

Cerame still stays in contact with Quiles, and he was able to cheer her on at the match against Penn State when she tallied a team-high 19 digs. Seeing her growth from age seven to age 20, was a special coach-player moment for the both of them, and further reassures Cerame that she made the right choice by leaving.

Cerame watched her older cousin, Paulina Prieto Cerame, play two years of volleyball for Aird at Penn State before transferring to Texas. Little did 15-year-old Cerame know, Aird would coach her one day too.

Paula (left), Paulina (right). (Photo courtesy of Paula Cerame)

When Cerame entered the transfer portal her sophomore year, Aird reached out about Indiana. Before reaching back out to him, she consulted with Paulina first. Paulina encouraged Cerame to take a leap of faith with Aird, so she grabbed the phone and called Aird back. She accepted his offer to be the second Cerame under his guidance.

“I was like, ‘Small world, you coached my cousin,’ and he was like, ‘Duh, I already knew that,’” Cerame said. “It was meant to be in a way.”

Every decision in Cerame’s life — a move to the United States, competing as a Gator, connecting with Aird — made her dream a reality.

Cerame has waved hello and goodbye to many volleyball courts, and it can be hard to fit in and make an impact at each new place. But at IU, that hasn’t been the case.

“Paula has been a huge part of what we do,” Aird said. “She’s fearless.”

And that fearlessness has seemingly manifested throughout the Hoosiers. Eighteen new sisters, 18 black bows.

Had it not been for the leap of faith Cerame and her family took when she was only 13, perhaps she never ends up at Indiana. Perhaps the cream and crimson uniform always remained blue and orange. Perhaps the black bow is nonexistent in Bloomington.

But Cerame doesn’t have to wonder about the what ifs. She’s doing it her way — the only way she’s ever known how.

“I don’t regret anything,” Cerame said.

In a family that’s known little else other than college volleyball, Cerame has trekked in the same path. Only now, she’s added her own distinctive twist to the family lineage. A black bow.

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