TAMPA — The live chat had moved along like most from University of South Florida volleyball matches, filled mostly with play-by-play updates from the Bulls. About an hour into USF's match against Lafayette in September, a comment from a guest popped up on the computer screen. "Dad Breen watching live on line from Afghanistan," it said. In the small circle of USF volleyball and the players' families, it was well known that Matt Breen, father of redshirt freshman middle blocker Caitlyn Breen, had been working in Afghanistan this season. A year earlier, he had attended home matches between stints overseas even though Caitlyn wasn't playing in her first year on campus. "Stay safe Matt," another parent typed. "Your daughter has been a monster this year."
Caitlyn, a 6-foot-2 player from St. Cloud, would end up getting the kill on the final point as the Bulls beat Lafayette.
"Can someone tell Caitlyn I was on line for the game. LOVE YA Caitlyn Dad," he wrote.
The chat's moderator quickly told USF coach Claire Lessinger that Caitlyn's father was online for the chat, and she allowed Caitlyn to sit in and trade a few quick messages with her father.
"hey dad hows the weather?" she typed.
"Hi honey. Hot and sunny," he responded.
"Same here. im playing really well i wish u were here to c me," she wrote.
"You had a great game GREAT JOB," he wrote. "Me 2."
"Thanks i have to go now but I love you and hope your being safe..thanks for connecting :)" she wrote.
It was only a three-minute conversation, just two people typing to each other from 8,000 miles away, but it can mean the world to families eager for whatever communication their lives will allow.
"It's amazing what our technology allows us to do," said Lessinger, who has a roster loaded with players a continent away from their parents. "The Internet is the connection for these families to their daughters."
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Matt Breen remembers when hearing from his family wasn't so easy. When he started doing military contract work 10 years ago in Kosovo, he was lucky to find a prepaid international phone card, sometimes speaking to his family once or twice in a month's time.
"It was very hard back then," he said. "The technology has changed so much."
Breen, 49, who spent 25 years in law enforcement in Florida, including work with SWAT team and K-9 units, now works for XE Services, formerly Blackwater, on a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense, providing firearms training and other necessary skills for the border police in southern Afghanistan. The secure military compound where he stays has an Internet connection that allows him to talk twice a day with his wife, Lisa, through a phone-over-Internet service called Skype.
"It's a big deal that he's over there, but it's kind of normal for our family. Having him on the phone and him on the computer is kind of what is natural for us," Caitlyn, 19, said. "It's great that he can Skype now. Before, when I was younger, there was nothing like that. It was telephone or nothing. Now we have Skype, Oovoo (a free video-conference service), this live chat, which is great, so many ways that he can call every day."
Tonight's USF match with Louisville opens the final weekend of home games for the Bulls, so it's Parents Weekend, and Lisa will be at the Sun Dome with Caitlyn's brother Keagen, 10, and grandparents as well.
Matt Breen hopes to be following the game from afar — Afghanistan is 91/2 hours ahead of Tampa, so it will be 4:30 a.m. Saturday when the Bulls start to play. The first class he teaches is at 6 a.m., and with fewer fellow Americans using the Internet in his compound in the middle of the night, he's more likely to have a strong connection.
"Parental support is such a big part of the girls' success," Lessinger said. "I'm a coach that preaches balances, that there are other things more important than volleyball. So when you hear, 'I've got Caitlyn's dad online from Afghanistan,' how can a postgame speech be more important than that?"
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That Caitlyn Breen has emerged as a starter for USF after not playing at all last season, that she is second on the team in blocks as a freshman, isn't surprising to Lessinger.
"Caitlyn's a player," Lessinger said Thursday. "When we recruited her, we saw high potential, someone who was just a little behind developmentally. She was a three-sport athlete, but if you're athletic and coordinated, volleyball is something you can pick up quickly if you're willing to put in the time and the effort and the energy."
Breen earned 12 varsity letters at Harmony High School, near St. Cloud, juggling volleyball, basketball and track, where she won a state championship in the discus.
"It's nice to be able to focus on one thing and one thing only," she said Monday during a break between classes.
After just one season of club volleyball, she got a scholarship offer from USF, and while the military academies at West Point and Annapolis were interested in her for track, she jumped at the opportunity USF offered.
"I'm still learning the game, and it's still really different from anything I've done before, but it's fun," she said. "I've always been an athlete, so playing is fun for me. I'm catching on a lot quicker and steadily improving, but at first it didn't come naturally to me. It was foreign to me."
Breen isn't the only Bulls volleyball player with a parent thousands of miles away. USF's roster has eight Floridians, but it also has key players from Puerto Rico, Brazil, Latvia and the Czech Republic. The Bulls are 17-6, on pace for their best record since 2002, the last time they made the NCAA Tournament, and Breen credits the six seniors on this year's team with helping her find her way in the sport.
"I could follow them around all the time. They're the best role models ever," said Breen, who is majoring in communication sciences and disorders and hopes to be a speech therapist or audiologist. "Their grades, the way they carry themselves, it's something everyone should look up to."
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USF's volleyball season is likely to end Nov. 25, and on Dec. 3 Matt Breen is scheduled to arrive home, staying long enough to be with his family for the holidays.
He's already reworking his schedule for next year to be home for much of Caitlyn's volleyball season, which will also let him see Keagen's youth football games and be home for the holidays again.
Until then, he has a schedule with USF's remaining games, and there's a good chance if the Bulls are playing, there's a father in Afghanistan following his daughter's every move as best he can.
"I enjoy what I do, and I enjoy trying to make a difference over here," he said. "But just the same, I'm looking forward to seeing my family again."
Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.