High-SchoolVolleyball: Boys Volleyball

By Walter Villa

T.J. DeFalcoCourtesy of Paul DeVries"There's no question that T.J. is the best volleyball player in the nation for his age group," says Tyler Hildebrand, a former U.S. national team setter. "I don't think anyone would debate that."

He’s only 15, but T.J. DeFalco already is being hailed as a potential volleyball Olympian and drawing a comparison to one of the world’s greatest athletes.

And DeFalco, a home-schooled sophomore-to-be in Huntington Beach, Calif., recently got a chance to train with volleyball royalty -- Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh.

“It was really cool to see how Olympic athletes train,” DeFalco said. “I wasn’t in awe or nervous. I was just amazed I got the opportunity to practice with them.”

Tyler Hildebrand, a former U.S. national team setter who has worked with DeFalco the past two years, boldly puts his pupil and NBA superstar LeBron James in the same sentence.

“I saw LeBron play in high school,” Hildebrand said. “Obviously, LeBron is LeBron, and maybe it’s not as big a difference, but the way T.J. is so much better than other kids his age reminds me of (James).

“There’s no question that T.J. is the best volleyball player in the nation for his age group. I don’t think anyone would debate that.”

Boys' Volleyball
Courtesy of the DeFalco familyT.J. DeFalco
What is up for debate is whether DeFalco, who is a 6-foot-3 left-side hitter, will ultimately pursue beach volleyball or the indoor game.

Hildebrand, the club director for The HBC -- which stands for Huntington Beach Club -- said DeFalco will have more opportunities indoors.

“I have seen him play indoors and on the beach, and he’s good at both,” Hildebrand said. “But the beach game is in a tough spot right now. The AVP Tour went bankrupt, and other than the top six to eight guys, the money on the beach is very limited.

“Indoors is different. First of all, you have to play indoors to compete in college because there is no (NCAA) sand volleyball for men. Secondly, the money is better overseas.”

At his size, DeFalco already has the physical requirements to play defense on the beach, but he may have to grow a bit more to be an elite hitter indoors.

Jon Aharoni, the coordinator of USA Beach Volleyball Development, said DeFalco is a natural on the sand.

“He’s got huge feet and hands -- he’s not done growing,” Aharoni said. “I’m a big fan of TJ’s. He’s coachable and has really improved in the past year. He’s not there yet, but he is good.

“He’s a kid I could very easily see representing the USA in beach volleyball someday.”

As for whether DeFalco continues to grow, there are mixed clues coming from his family. His father, Torey, is just 5-10. But Torey has a brother who is 6-11. His mother, Gina, is 5-8.

Torey, a marketing consultant, and Gina both remain active in leagues. Their seven children, who range in ages from 8 to 29, all have played volleyball, although none at T.J.’s level. All seven kids are or were home-schooled, and all seven have names starting with the letter “T.”

Torey, who said he has always been “a bit of a rebel,” decided along with his wife to home-school the kids because the job he had at the time forced the family to relocate often.

“Rather than subject them to the stresses of moving from school to school, we chose another option,” Torey said. “We also wanted to help them develop a love for learning.”

According to T.J. DeFalco, the flexible schedule of home-schooling has given him an edge in volleyball.

“I like all the time it gives me to be on the beach training,” he said. “The part I like least (about home-schooling) is the social aspect. I don’t get to hang out with friends as much as if I were at a school.”

Even so, DeFalco already has had an interesting life. He grew up in Missouri, where his family raised exotic animals.

“It was kind of like the movie ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ ” DeFalco said.

His older brother Tony was once kicked in the leg by an emu, a large bird that is a member of the ostrich family. The injury required 80 stitches, DeFalco said.

From Missouri, the family moved to San Diego, and in January, they relocated again, this time to Huntington Beach.

DeFalco is not sure if he will play high school volleyball. But with or without high school volleyball, the sport is ever present in DeFalco’s life. He trains nearly every day, whether it’s on the beach or indoors.

Jose Loiola, a former pro beach player in Brazil who now helps Aharoni coach the U.S. Under-19 program, raves about DeFalco.

“T.J. is very mature for his age,” Loiola said. “He is very athletic and explosive and shows great skills. There are some players who are good at one thing but not another, but T.J. has the whole package.”
By Walter Villa

Cesar MedinaCourtesy of Richard EdsonAs a senior, Cesar Medina led Jordan (Los Angeles) in aces, kills, kill-percentage and blocks.

It’s an unlikely place to find a volleyball star -- one that his club coach calls “the Spanish Karch Kiraly” -- but almost everything about Cesar Medina’s story is unusual.

Medina’s neighborhood of South Los Angeles is one of the roughest in the country.

To get to and from Jordan High School -- which sits between two housing projects -- Medina will typically walk through gang turf and witness drug use, illegal gambling and other crimes.

There’s little refuge inside Medina’s home, either. His parents have one room, and his three siblings share the other. Cesar sleeps on a mattress in the living room.

In the past, it was difficult for him to get to sleep before 3 a.m. because of all the noise and activity going on in his house, which explains why he had to repeat the ninth grade.

Medina rarely made it to class.

“It wasn’t like I was ditching,” said Medina, a 6-foot outside hitter with phenomenal leaping ability. “I’m a heavy sleeper, and I couldn’t get to school.”

Still, Medina is accountable for what transpired his first two years of high school, when he attended Fremont (Los Angeles), and he did much better in his junior and senior seasons at Jordan.

‘He’s an innocent’

But Ed DeGrasse, who has served as Medina’s club coach for the Pio Pico Middle School team the past couple of years, said the obstacles his player faces on a daily basis would have overwhelmed most people.

Jordan volleyball
Courtesy of Jordan VillaCesar Medina says he's learned his lesson after poor grades forced him to miss the first two years of high school volleyball.
“He’s an innocent and very naive,” DeGrasse said. “If I could adopt him and take him out of there, I would.”

On weekends, DeGrasse drives 30 miles out of his way to pick up Medina for club matches. DeGrasse arrives at Medina’s home before the sun rises and bangs on the aluminum-foil-encased windows until someone comes to the door.

“It’s a sad situation,” DeGrasse said. “But as much as I may not like where Cesar lives, that’s his home. He probably wouldn’t be too upset if he lived his life there because that’s all he knows.”

Medina said he wants to go to a four-year college, but because he had a 1.0 GPA halfway through high school, he has no such offers. A junior college may be his best bet.

One reason Medina has gone under the radar for so long is that his high school didn’t allow him to play until he got his grades up, which finally happened in time for his junior season.

“It’s embarrassing, and I regret it,” Medina said. “School is not that hard. You just have to show up and do the work.

“Looking back on it, I could have done it and played all four years; it’s a lesson learned.”

A star is born

Once he became eligible -- he has a 3.0 GPA the past two years -- Medina was easily the most dominant force on his team, according to Jordan coach Manny Nunez.

“He’s very aggressive and competitive,” Nunez said. “He wants to mash the ball every time, and he hit quite a few facials [off of opponents].”

He'll rip your head off. The ball comes at you so fast, you can't see it coming. He hits with such violence.

-- PPMS coach Ed DeGrasse
DeGrasse said Medina is humble and polite -- except when he is on the court.

“He’ll rip your head off,” DeGrasse said. “The ball comes at you so fast, you can’t see it coming. He hits with such violence.”

DeGrasse, who played Division I volleyball at Cal State Northridge and competed against men who went on to play in the Olympics, said Medina is the best talent he’s ever seen.

The comparison to Kiraly -- made by DeGrasse -- is attention-grabbing but seemingly unrealistic.

Kiraly is perhaps the biggest legend the sport of volleyball has ever produced, and Medina is an 18-year-old kid from the slums who learned the sport by playing against men on the dirt/cement courts at Roosevelt Park in South L.A.

Still, it’s interesting to note that there isn’t a single player on the U.S. men’s volleyball national team who looks or sounds like Medina, who is of Mexican descent.

Medina’s size is also different because there are few, if any, examples of a 6-foot outside hitter making it big in men’s volleyball.

For instance, UC Irvine, which won the national title this year in men’s volleyball, did it with outside hitters ranging from 6-2 to 6-8. And the U.S. national team uses players as tall as 6-10 at the position.

That, however, doesn’t deter DeGrasse from believing in Medina.

“He rarely gets blocked,” DeGrasse said. “He can go up in the air, look, survey the court and change his shot. He’s an exceptionally smart hitter.”

A record season

At Jordan this past season, Medina led his team in kills (489), kill-percentage (71.7), aces (95) and blocks (55). He was also second in digs (330).

With Medina leading the way, Jordan (38-6-1) set a school record for wins. The Bulldogs also went 22-1-1 down the stretch before losing 3-0 to Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach) in the Division 2 state semifinals.

Mira Costa, by the way, had six Division I players on its roster and finished No. 2 in the final POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings.

Medina was also the L.A. City Section Division 2 Player of the Year for two seasons in a row and leaves Jordan as the school’s career leader in kills.

“It feels good to make history,” Medina said. “It shows how hard our team worked. We had eight seniors, and it felt like every time we practiced, we had this chemistry.”

Medina is now attending summer school and is still trying to improve his grades. He has an offer to play volleyball and soccer -- some say he is just as gifted in that sport -- at Cerritos College, a two-year school in Norwalk, Calif.

“He’s done a lot for L.A. city volleyball,” DeGrasse said. “Ever since I saw him play at age 15, I’ve been infatuated with his game. He is a self-taught street player, but he’s phenomenal.

“People might say, ‘Wow, DeGrasse has given this kid so many chances.’ But I just can’t give up on his talent.”
By Kirstin Olsen

WHEATON, Ill. -- The Wheaton Warrenville South boys’ volleyball team, which finished the season with a 42-0 record and the school’s seventh state championship, was honored on Friday as the POWERADE FAB 50 national champions.

Parents, coaches and fans were present at an assembly at the Wheaton Warrenville South gym. The team was led onto the court by a drum line, and principal Dave Claypool spoke to the group and introduced coach Bill Schreier and WWS alums Matt McCarthy (Ball State) and Doug Burchett (Illinois), who also won state championships.

“This has to be considered an incredible honor to cap an incredible season. We have had two previous teams go undefeated. The 2001 team with Sean Rooney went 38-0 and the 2004 team went 41-0 led by Matt McCarthy,” coach Bill Schreier said. “Every trek has its bumps and bruises along the way, and this was no different.

“I do know that I have never had a team as focused and committed as this team. This national championship is a culmination of all of the work that has been put in over the last two seasons. Memories last a lifetime, and this is something that will never be forgotten. To go 84-2 in sets throughout the season is a remarkable accomplishment and cap to a great senior group.”

Senior co-captain Thomas Jaeschke, a 6-foot-6 outside hitter and Loyola recruit, was selected Chicago Area Player of the Year. Senior co-captain Matt Callaway, a 6-8 middle hitter and Penn State recruit, also was a first-team All-Chicago Area honoree. Both were first-team AVCA All Americans.

Wheaton Warrenville South is the first boys’ volleyball team from Illinois to win the national championship.
FAB 50Courtesy of Wheaton Warrenville SouthWheaton Warrenville South capped its undefeated season with a state championship.
Mark Tennis and Kirstin Olsen

The New Jersey Tournament of Champions concluded on Thursday night, and all 50 positions in the final POWERADE FAB 50 for the 2012 boys' volleyball season have been locked up.

With the final rankings also comes the official announcement that the mythical national champion is Wheaton Warrenville South (Wheaton, Ill.).

It was considered seriously to move up No. 2 Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) due to an advantage in strength of schedule, but it wasn't so much of an advantage that a team should be dropped after already sitting in the No. 1 position.

Wheaton Warrenville South becomes the first Illinois team to end the season No. 1 in the nation in boys' volleyball, and it could be the best team in state history. The Tigers completed their perfect run with a 25-21, 25-13 triumph over Glenbrook North (Northbrook, Ill.) in last Saturday's state championship.

While coach Bill Schreier's squad has never finished 42-0 before, the school has had two previous unbeaten state champions, and on Saturday won its seventh state crown overall.

In the New Jersey final, Fair Lawn defeated previous FAB 50 No. 33 Southern Regional (Manahawkin, N.J.) and moves into the final rankings. Southern Regional stays, too, due to having two previous wins over Fair Lawn.

Click here for the final rankings of the 2012 season.
Wheaton Warrenville SouthConrad CasteloWith a perfect record and a strong showing by other Illinois teams, Wheaton Warrenville South (Wheaton, Ill.) takes over the top spot in the FAB 50 rankings.

Although Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach, Calif.), the CIF Southern Section Division I champion, has a strong argument to be the new No. 1 team in the POWERADE FAB 50, the choice this week instead has gone to unbeaten Wheaton Warrenville South (Wheaton, Ill.).

Coach Bill Schreier's team improved to 36-0 on Tuesday night with an easy win over St. Francis (Wheaton, Ill.) in the regional round of the state playoffs. The Tigers have been No. 1 in Illinois since the start of the season and have not slipped in a single match.

Also helping Wheaton Warrenville South in the rankings is the performance of teams from Illinois in general against other top teams from other states, including a win by No. 11 Lincoln-Way East (Frankfort, Ill.) over No. 14 Buchanan (Clovis, Calif.).

If Mira Costa only had two losses on the season instead of four, or if the Mustangs had been completely healthy all season, then they'd probably not have dropped behind the Tigers earlier.

One of the reasons Mira Costa was seriously considered to jump past Wheaton Warrenville South is that the Mustangs beat previous No. 1 Loyola (Los Angeles) 25-19, 25-22, 25-27, 21-25, 15-12 in last Saturday's CIF Southern Section Division I finals.

It was Mira Costa's first CIFSS title since 2008. Setter Jackson Carr had 58 assists and 10 blocks while outside hitter Chris Orenic had 24 kills and 10 digs.

Click here for the complete Week 10 rankings.
Loyola VolleyballVbshots.comLoyola (Los Angeles) has a few more hurdles to clear if it wants to claim the mythical national title.

California's sectional playoffs are just about wrapped up, which means it could be one giant hurdle cleared by No. 1 Loyola (Los Angeles, Calif.) in its quest to be the mythical national champion.

The Cubs got past No. 6 Servite (Anaheim, Calif.) in Tuesday's semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs with a three-set sweep and will meet No. 3 Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) in Saturday's championship.

To hold off unbeaten Wheaton Warrenville South (Wheaton, Ill.), Loyola needs to win that title and then follow it up with a title in the CIF Southern California regional championships.

State championships in Florida and Arizona are now complete with Missouri on track to complete its championships this weekend.

Click here for the complete Week 9 rankings.
By Mark Tennis and Kirstin Olsen

It's the beginning of the end of the 2012 season with the completion of last week's state championships in Hawaii.

In the Division I state final, FAB 50-ranked teams Punahou (Honolulu) and Kamehameha-Hawai'i (Kea'au) hooked up in an epic match.

Punahou, the defending champ, won again, but it wasn't easy as the Buff'n Blu needed a fifth set to prevail 23-25, 25-18, 23-25, 25-11, 15-13. KS-Hawaii's Evan Enriques, the tourney MVP, put on a show and finished with 42 kills.

Punahou had a balanced attack led by Tui Tuileta with 20 kills, Nicholas Andrews with 16 kills and Sean Gruebner with 15 kills and eight blocks. This marks Puanhou's 30th state championship in the 43 years the school has fielded a team.

State championships will be decided this weekend in Florida and Arizona with the various section championships in California getting into full swing.

Click here for the complete Week 8 rankings.
By Walter Villa

Mitch StahlCourtesy of Lisa Stahl"As soon as I picked up a volleyball, I knew it was something I was going to love," the 6-foot-8 Mitch Stahl says.

In the fall of 2008, Ray Frazer, his twin brother, Tate, and their cousin Kyle Diller kept noticing this kid at their gym in Chambersburg, Pa.

It was easy for the three volleyball players to spot Mitch Stahl. He was a 6-foot-6 eighth-grader who would soon grow to his current height of 6-8.

But for a full year, Stahl, who played basketball, resisted their efforts to get him to try volleyball.

Finally, the twins and Diller made a breakthrough.

“My cousin just gave Mitch a volleyball and said, ‘Here, hit this,’ ” Ray Frazer said. “We noticed right away that he had a natural swing for volleyball. It was like he was born for this.”

Stahl has exceeded everyone’s expectations, and then some. He recently became one of 19 players invited to compete for 12 spots on the U.S. Men’s Volleyball Junior National Team.

Stahl, a middle blocker, and the 18 other players will travel to Colorado Springs, Colo., for a two-week training camp in August.

Stahl said he was at a study hall at Chambersburg High (Chambersburg, Pa.) when he found out the news. Since he was still at school, he was unable to call his mother and texted her instead.

“I was pretty excited,” he said. “I saw my number (on the USA Volleyball website), and I got a big smile on my face.

“Now I can work on representing my country, which would be one of the biggest things I could ever accomplish.”

He’s unique

What’s most stunning about the invitation extended to Stahl is that he only started playing competitive volleyball a little over two years ago -- February of 2010 to be exact.

Not only that, but of the 19 players invited to the national team training, 14 are already in college and four are high school seniors. Stahl is the only junior.

Mitch Stahl
Courtesy of Lisa StahlMitch Stahl is the only junior who made the U.S. men's volleyball junior national training team.
He’s also unique geographically. He’s the only Pennsylvania player on a team dominated by 10 California guys.

“My gut tells me Mitch has a really good shot at making the final roster,” said Terry Ranck, who is Stahl’s coach at Yorktowne Volleyball Club in York, Pa. “I looked at the roster and saw a total of five middles who will be competing for three, or possibly four, spots.”

If Stahl, 17, makes the final roster, he will be part of the U.S. team that will compete in the NORCECA Men’s Under-21 Continental Championships Aug. 27-Sept. 1 in Colorado Springs. The top two teams there will qualify for the 2013 FIVB Men’s Junior World Championship.

Frazer, a senior who will play for St. Francis (Pa.) next season, said he will be following Stahl’s development.

“I’m really proud of him,” Frazer said. “It’s pretty awesome to (have taught) someone volleyball and see him make the junior national (training) team.”

Frazer was referring to those early days of Stahl’s volleyball development. Before he went out for the team, Stahl practiced at a pair of church gyms with the Frazers and another family.

In February of 2010, when the high school season began, Stahl became a varsity starter as a freshman for Chambersburg coach Kirk Crouse.

By June of 2010, Stahl was a starter on the Yorktowne club team that finished in 11th place at the Junior Olympics.

“He was extremely athletic for someone so young, especially at his size,” Crouse said. “He is also very intense and hustles.

“A lot of big kids are content to just hit the ball and relax. But Mitch strives to play 100 percent. He’s interested in all facets of the game, from setting to hitting to back row.”

Recruiting gem

Stahl, who can touch 11 feet, 9 inches, is considering college offers from Penn State, Ohio State, UCLA, Pepperdine, George Mason and Loyola-Chicago.

The college he chooses, he said, will be the one that can offer him a great education, has a standout volleyball program and a coach he feels will be supportive of him throughout his career.

Stahl comes from a tall and athletic family. His mother, Lisa, who is 6-feet, played basketball at New Mexico State and said she would have played volleyball if they had let her compete in a second sport.

Stahl’s father and Lisa’s husband, Tony, is 6-5. He turned down a chance to play basketball at Penn State, Stahl said, because he wanted to start an automotive body-shop business.

Stahl, who expects to pick a school by July, has a 4.01 GPA and is interested in studying architecture, engineering or computer science.

His immediate plan, though, is to lead Chambersburg (11-1) to a deep playoff run. He still plays basketball -- he averaged 10 points and five rebounds as a junior -- but he has made it clear that his priority is volleyball.

“As soon as I picked up a volleyball, I knew it was something I was going to love,” Stahl said. “I’m a passionate guy, and I love the fact that volleyball is intense from the first serve all the way through. I love it.”
FAB 50Kirstin Olsen/ESPNHSOtay Ranch knocked off No. 1 Loyola at the Redondo Varsity Classic and moves up to No. 6 in this week's FAB 50.
By Mark Tennis and Kirstin Olsen

The Redondo Varsity Classic offered an opportunity for some major upsets last weekend with nine POWERADE FAB 50 teams participating from San Diego to the San Fernando Valley.

There were upsets, including one of the biggest of the season, when No. 1 Loyola (Los Angeles) was toppled in the semifinals by Otay Ranch (San Diego). The event was won by Mira Costa of Manhattan Beach.

Mira Costa, with USC commit Chris Orenic playing for the first time this season after rehabbing an injury, avenged an earlier loss to Westview (San Diego) in the semifinals and then defeated Otay Ranch 25-21, 25-21 in the final. Senior setter and George Mason commit Jackson Carr had 28 assists in the championship match.

Due to the tourney title, Mira Costa inched up from No. 4 to No. 3 in this week's rankings. While the team did lose to former No. 3 Esperanza (Anaheim) earlier in the season, that was prior to Orenic's return.

The more difficult decision was whether to keep Loyola at No. 1 or move up No. 2 Wheaten Warrenville South. Since Loyola still has a win over Mira Costa and could avenge its only loss later in the Southern California regional playoffs, the Cubs stayed in the top spot.

Loyola also will have to deal not only with Mira Costa and Esperanza in the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs, but other top-ranked squads as well. Its strength of schedule would still trump Wheaton Warrenville South if both teams win out, but with one more loss for Loyola, an unbeaten Wheaton Warrenville South would get the edge.

Click here for the complete Week 7 rankings.
By Mark Tennis and Kirstin Olsen

Punahou VolleyballEd ChanPunahou clinched a division title last week and remains in the top 10 of the POWERADE FAB 50.

League championship tournaments this week in Hawaii will be followed by the start of state playoffs next week, but in other states there are still a handful of major tournaments to be played.

In Southern California, the Redondo Varsity Classic will provide an opportunity for nine FAB 50 teams to square off.

No. 1 Loyola (Los Angeles), No. 4 Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach), No. 7 Westview (San Diego), No. 8 Otay Ranch (Chula Vista), No. 10 Dana Hills (Dana Point), No. 11 San Clemente, No. 12 Oak Park (Agoura Hills), No. 13 Westlake (Westlake Village) and No. 50 host Redondo Union (Redondo Beach) will all get together this weekend at the loaded tournament.

Since many of the teams also will be in the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs, the Redondo tourney could be more important in the rankings to Westview and Otay Ranch, the two CIF San Diego Section schools.

This week's biggest mover in the rankings is new No. 15 De La Salle (Concord, Calif.). The Spartans went unbeaten at the Bellarmine Prep tourney in San Jose (Calif.), topping Clovis West (Fresno, Calif.) in the championship match 25-18, 25-19. They went from No. 32 to No. 15 in this week's FAB 50.

Click here for the complete Week 6 rankings.
By Walter Villa

Sam HuntCourtesy of Dave RossSam Hunt, a star volleyball player at Servite (Anaheim, Calif.), will play football at Air Force next fall. "I've gotten more calls from colleges about Sam than any other player," Servite volleyball coach Matt Marrujo says.

This season is Sam Hunt’s volleyball finale, and it is looking like it could be a great one.

The 6-foot-6, 205-pound senior middle blocker plays for Servite (Anaheim, Calif.), the No. 5 team in the POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings.

But after the season ends, Hunt will focus on a different sport. After competing in volleyball, basketball and football for much of the past three years, Hunt will concentrate on football for Air Force, where he will also study engineering.

Hunt, 18, and Servite volleyball coach Matt Marrujo both used the words “mature decision” to describe Hunt’s choice to attend Air Force.

“Right out of college, you get a guaranteed job in your field,” Hunt said. “Rather than going to another college and wondering if I will have a job after I graduate, here I get a guarantee.”

Added Marrujo: “It’s a great opportunity. I would love to see him play college volleyball. But he has always been up-front with us. There are more scholarships in football.”

Servite volleyball
Ed Chan/ESPNHSThanks to his great leaping ability, Sam Hunt was used on special teams last fall to try to block field goals.
Marrujo said Hunt’s leaping ability has improved due to volleyball, which has helped him in football, where he plays wide receiver. In fact, Hunt was also used last year to get up and try to block field goals.

Servite football coach Troy Thomas said part of Hunt’s appeal for Air Force is that he can create mismatches because of his size and body control.

“He has huge growth potential,” Thomas said. “Being in a Division I weight room, you will see him put on 25 pounds and becoming a tough cover and a tough guy to bring down.”

Hunt played baseball as a freshman and didn’t play competitive volleyball until a year later.

He earned all-league honors as a junior, and Marrujo said it’s difficult to predict just how good he could have become had he played volleyball full-time.

“He jumped in with us right away,” Marrujo said. “I’ve gotten more calls from colleges about Sam than any other player.”

Hunt said he enjoys volleyball and dreams of winning a regional title (there is no state title in California), even though teams such as No. 1 Loyola (Los Angeles, Calif.) and No. 4 Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) could stand in the Friars’ way.

It was his brother, Ben Hunt, who convinced him to try volleyball. Ben, a 6-4 sophomore, is an outside hitter for Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.

Ben said his brother could have been recruited by the likes of Stanford and USC had he devoted himself to volleyball.

“It (stinks) for volleyball to lose a great athlete like Sam,” Ben said. “But seeing him play football, he is great at that, too. Sam can pick up any sport and in a week look like a natural.”

Sam Hunt, who has a 4.0 GPA, said he doesn’t really have a favorite sport. He just loves to compete and enjoys whatever sport he’s playing at the time.

But it is fair to say that volleyball has helped him become a better wide receiver.

“In volleyball, you have to be quick with your footwork, moving side to side,” he said. “As a receiver, I need to be able to move laterally or vertically and go get the ball, really attack.”

Hunt ran a 4.85 in the 40-yard dash before last season, but he feels he got a lot faster as the season progressed.

And that’s what makes him such an intriguing prospect.

By his own admission, Hunt felt “rookie-ish” at the start of every season, always transitioning over from a different sport.

He felt he made a lot of “dumb mistakes” early in the 2011 football season before he started running better routes and making difficult catches look easy.

Air Force coaches have told Hunt that if he gains a bit more weight, he will be moved to tight end. Hunt would prefer to stay at receiver, where he can jump over cornerbacks and grab touchdown passes.

Hunt knows there aren’t a lot of catches to go around in Air Force’s run-dominated option attack but says he is “fine with that.”

He’s also fine with the rigors of basic training. His grandfather was in the Navy and worked on submarines, disabling bombs. Two of his cousins were also in the Navy and traveled all over the world.

Those family members -- as well as other people he’s met -- have said that basic training is much harder mentally than it is physically.

“My recruiter didn’t sugarcoat it. He said it was going to (stink) my first two years,” Hunt said. “But I’m willing to go through the discipline and toughness.

“It seems hard. The (drill sergeant) will yell at you. But people get through it every year.”

Hunt will owe the Air Force a five-year commitment after graduation. At that time, he will give the Air Force three options of where he would like to be stationed.

After that, Hunt is free to either re-enlist or leave the military.

But all those tough decisions are years away. For now, Hunt wants to enjoy his senior season of volleyball and would love to go out on top.

“Sam has the perfect build for volleyball and is very quick to the pin,” Marrujo said. “He reads the game very well for a guy who hasn’t played a lot. Because of football, he is a very strong and physical player at the net and hits the ball hard.

“I think there is no question he could have been a Division I volleyball player.”
By Walter Villa

Parker BrownTom Hauck"I knew I could have been going to a Division I college," says Parker Brown, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter at Corona del Mar. "But because I had been using, I didn't have any offers."

Parker Brown’s GPA had sunk to 0.9, his weight had plummeted from 205 pounds to 147 pounds and he was coughing up “black tar and other gross stuff.”

Brown’s stamina was down, he was missing practices and he was neglecting his volleyball friends.

It was Brown’s junior year at Corona del Mar (Newport Beach, Calif.), and the marijuana addiction that started when he was 12 years old had grown out of control.

He was getting high a dozen times a day, and he had gotten himself kicked off his Balboa Bay club team after he showed up high for the 2011 Junior Olympics tournament in Minnesota.

“I was smoking all day, every day,” said Brown, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter who is now a senior at Corona del Mar. “My whole world revolved around pot, and I didn’t realize how much damage it was causing.

“Pot is really a scary drug because it’s one of the worst things for your brain.”

Teammate Joe Ctvrtlik, a Stanford recruit, said he knew for a while that Brown was doing “some stuff on the side.” He said he’d see Brown at school on Friday and not hear from him again until Monday.

“It was scary to see,” Ctvrtlik said. “He was smoking atrocious amounts. His attitude was down and gloomy, and he wouldn’t listen to anyone.”

The low point

The incident at the Junior Olympics turned out to be the catalyst for change in Brown’s life.

His parents -- Carol Peck and stepfather Scott Peck as well as father Jeff Brown and stepmother Diana Brown -- had heard enough. They sent their son directly from Minnesota to Capstone Treatment Center in Arkansas.

Brown hadn’t hit rock bottom just yet, though. For two weeks, all he thought about was getting out so he could use again. He cried a lot and didn’t participate in the program.

Parker Brown
Tom Hauck"He is not afraid to dig the heavy balls that elite guys hit," Corona del Mar coach Steve Conti says of Parker Brown.
Finally, he had an epiphany.

“I figured out how [crappy] my life was going,” said Brown, 18, who stayed at the rehab center for 100 days. “I knew I could have been going to a Division I college. But because I had been using, I didn’t have any offers.”

Corona del Mar coach Steve Conti said Brown was his strongest player in the weight room as a sophomore, but that was not the case as a junior.

“His whole body of work as a sophomore was better than it was as a junior,” Conti said. “I never personally caught him [using], but people in the community had started to talk about what was going on with Parker.

“That was not to ‘narc’ on Parker -- there was genuine concern. You could see that he was less engaging. You couldn’t really have a conversation with him. Parker had a comatose look on his face.”

Conti has a favorite saying. “Show me your friends,” he said, “and I will show you your future.”

Turning his life around

Brown’s future, which looked bleak less than a year ago, is now looking better and better.

His best friend, crew athlete Keaton Kay, has moved in with Parker and the Peck family, serving as a positive role model.

Parker Brown
Courtesy of Scott PeckParker Brown has been clean for nine months, and now other kids ask him for advice.
In addition, Brown has regained the trust of his biological parents, who are divorced and live next door to each other.

“Even when he was getting high, Parker still had a heart of gold,” Carol Peck said. “But now … it’s amazing what he has done in his life the past year. He’s getting A’s and B-pluses. He does his own laundry, cleans his room. He’s just a different person.”

Brown not only quit marijuana, he also dropped his cigarette problem, which had been extensive, and said he no longer feels the temptation to use any substance.

Now, when he does go to parties, Brown serves as the designated driver because everyone in the community knows he no longer uses.

His most recent report card -- a 3.8 GPA -- was stunning to Brown, who for a long time thought he was incapable of doing well in school.

The problem, he knows now, was the pot. Three years of being a “horrible student,” as he describes it, has left his cumulative GPA at 2.7, which he feels is below par.

Because of his issues, only four colleges have shown an interest in offering Brown a volleyball scholarship: Ohio State, Pepperdine, Southern Cal and California Irvine.

“I can’t explain how grateful I am to those schools for giving me a second chance,” Brown said.

Sticking to it

Clean and sober for nine months, Brown is starting to make a positive impact in the community. Seeing how he has turned his life around, some kids have come to him for advice.

Brown said his teammates are clean but a lot of other athletes he knows are “drinking, smoking pot and doing other things.”

Corona del Mar volleyball
Courtesy of Scott Peck"Even when he was going through his problem, he was never disrespectful," coach Steve Conti says. "He was just hurting himself."
He won’t push his sobriety on others, but Brown said he is there for support if needed.

“I’m stoked when kids ask me for help,” he said.

Brown is now back to his normal weight of 205 pounds, his stamina has returned and his relationships with family and friends have been repaired.

Corona del Mar, which is No. 25 in the POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings, is benefiting from Brown’s return to prominence. Conti said Brown is an ultra-competitive player who, if anything, has to tone it down at times in the weight room so he doesn’t tire himself out.

On the court, Brown is a versatile athlete who can play setter, libero and outside hitter in college.

“He may be a bit of a tweener size-wise,” Conti said. “He is a little-to-a-lot smaller than some of the college outside hitters who go 6-6 to 6-8, but he doesn’t look across the net and let that affect him. In fact, when sees someone bigger, he gets that look in his eyes because he loves the challenge.

“We’ve also used him some at libero, and he has the mindset you want because he is not afraid to dig the heavy balls that elite guys hit. He just needs to improve his passing for the next level.”

Ctvrtlik said Brown is one of the most determined players on the team.

“He is playing way better now,” he said. “Before, his mind was a little slow. Now, he has that spark in his eyes. He’s proud of himself, and we’re proud of him. I think he can be a really good college player.”

Volleyball aside, Conti said he is excited about Brown’s future.

“I’m most proud that he has not fallen back and has remained on the right path,” Conti said. “Even when he was going through his problem, he was never disrespectful. He was just hurting himself.

“He’s a great kid.”
By Walter Villa

Brad Thele, Carlton Gillespie, Kiel Bell, Ryan Schwamm and Maher KhazemCourtesy of Scott Thele Spanish River boys' volleyball players (from left) Brad Thele, Carlton Gillespie (Pompano Beach), Kiel Bell, Ryan Schwamm and Maher Khazem traded in their uniforms for tuxes last month.

They understand if people are shocked by their decision to leave the court in the middle of a boys’ volleyball match, but they expect their choice to be respected.

The boys’ volleyball team at Spanish River (Boca Raton, Fla.) created a stir last month when they bolted from the championship of the Smoothie King Invitational in Miami so they could get to their senior prom.

Spanish River (12-1) had done well to reach the final of the 16-team tournament that featured six schools in the POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings.

In the semifinals, Spanish River, now ranked 41st, beat Archbishop McCarthy (Southwest Ranches, Fla.), a team that had owned them previously. McCarthy beat Spanish River three times last year, including a five-set elimination match in the state quarterfinals.

“That was sweet revenge,” said Lex Weiner, a 6-0 senior setter and a tri-captain for Spanish River.

Sweet revenge quickly turned sour, however, when Weiner and his Sharks teammates lost the first set of the final, 27-25, to Columbus (Miami).

At a practice before the start of the tournament, the Spanish River team -- which includes eight seniors -- had decided that if a time conflict came up, they would go to prom.

“We discussed it and decided as a team,” Weiner said. “Going to prom is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Spanish River coach Karen Adams said she had warned tournament officials about the potential conflict and also informed the Columbus coach, whom she said was very understanding.

As for the decision, she said she left it up to the boys.

“As young men, you have to make decisions and live with the consequences,” she said. “There’s not always going to be someone there to make the decision for them.”

Rivals Wanted To Play, Too

Chris Herrera, one of the stars of the Columbus team, said he doesn’t “judge” the Spanish River kids for their choice. But he did admit to being disappointed.

Spanish River boys' volleyball
Courtesy of Scott TheleBrad Thele (10), a 6-3 senior outside hitter, says his team's decision to forfeit the final is not indicative of their commitment to the sport.
“We didn’t get to really beat them,” he said. “We wanted to show we could beat a top-ranked team like Spanish River. It was their decision, and we couldn’t do anything about it.

“But our coach (Greg Villareal), makes it real clear that if we want to be on the team, we can’t miss a match except for a family emergency.”

The Spanish River kids, though, felt differently. Maher Khazem, a 6-4 middle blocker and another of the Sharks’ tri-captains, said he and his teammates had made commitments to their dates that they would take them to prom.

The boys had also invested “a lot of money” for the prom tickets, tuxedo rentals and everything else associated with the big event.

“We all wanted to stay and play,” Khazem said. “We felt we could beat (Columbus). We don’t get the chance to play another high-level team like them very often, and it was annoying to lose the first set.”

Weiner said the desire to win was such that even though the decision to leave had been made previously, the players almost had a last-second change of heart.

“We considered it,” he said.

Adams got tournament officials to move the final from 5:15 p.m. to 4:15, but even that was not enough for the team to play the entire match, drive about 90 minutes from Miami to Boca Raton, shower, get dressed and get to the prom with their dates.

Even leaving when they did, Khazem said he was about 15 minutes late to prom and missed a lot of the picture-taking.

Bad Timing

Weiner said Spanish River got to the final of the same tournament the previous year and remembers it finishing by 4 p.m. But this year’s tournament ran longer than the one in 2011, he said.

“Our semifinal finished at 2:30, and we would’ve been willing to play the final right away,” Weiner said. “But they had other (bracket finals) to play first.”

Weiner said he and his teammates “got a lot of grief” about their decision, especially from former Spanish River players. He said he still respects those guys -- the Sharks won state titles in 2006 and 2007 before he made varsity -- but he would have preferred if they hadn’t voiced their criticism.

“I feel they should be supporting us,” Weiner said. “They should respect our decision, even if they disagree.”

The unfortunate part of all this, Adams said, is that the attention brought to the program made it seem as if her players lack a commitment to volleyball.

“I can honestly say you will have a hard time finding a team that is as hard working and dedicated as these guys,” Adams said.

Brad Thele, a 6-3 senior outside hitter and the third of the team’s tri-captains, can vouch for her coach’s opinion.

Thele said all of his team’s starters play volleyball year-round and spend up to 30 hours a week either playing the sport or in the gym training.

“We play high school and club, and we serve as managers for our girls’ team,” Thele said. “We’re around the sport all the time.”

The team is traveling to Chicago for a tournament this weekend and will start the district playoffs the following week.

Most of the Spanish River seniors have been on the varsity since their sophomore years, which is when Adams became their coach. The team has made winning the program’s first state title since 2007 their goal.

Khazem said his team -- which also includes senior hitters Ryan Schwamm and James McKenney, senior libero Julian Astrove and junior right-sider Kiel Bell -- has as much talent as any school in the state.

Weiner is a bit more cautious, saying his Sharks have “a long way to go to get to state.”

Weiner, though, said his teammates all agree on one thing.

“If that had been the state tournament, there would have been no question,” Weiner said. “We would have stayed and played.”
By Mark Tennis and Kirstin Olsen

With the majority of schools in Southern California on spring break for much of this week and last week, many teams in the POWERADE FAB 50 were idle since the last rankings were compiled.

There was some shuffling at the top of the order, however, after Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) went to the Clash of the Titans in Hawaii and prevailed in matches over two FAB 50 teams from the islands, including one win against previous No. 2 Punahou.

The Mustangs, who also topped Hawaii Baptist during the trip, moved up to No. 2 from No. 4 in this week's rankings. Punahou slipped to No. 5 behind No. 3 Wheaton Warrenville South (Wheaton, Ill.) and new No. 4 Servite (Anaheim, Calif.).

This weekend, 16 teams will play in the Karch Kiraly Tournament of Champions at Santa Barbara (Calif.). Mira Costa, Buchanan (Clovis, Calif.), Santa Margarita (Rancho SM, Calif.), Newport Harbor (Newport Beach, Calif.), Thousand Oaks (Calif.) and Esperanza (Anaheim, Calif.) will all be among those competing.

Click here for the complete Week 4 rankings.
By Kirstin Olsen

Wheaton Warrenville South volleyballConrad CasteloThomas Jaeschke (17) of Wheaton Warrenville South played soccer, baseball, football, basketball and golf as a kid. "My school's volleyball program is built around winning, and naturally that was what I gravitated toward," he says.
BROWSE OUR GALLERY: Tiger Classic photos

Thomas Jaeschke, a 6-foot-7 outside hitter for Wheaton Warrenville South, was named MVP after leading the No. 4 team in the POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings to the title at the Tiger Classic in Wheaton, Ill.

The Tigers bested the talented field, which included No. 34 Archbishop Moeller of Cincinnati, and beat Lincoln-Way East (Frankfort, Ill.) 25-19,25-18 in the final.

Jaeschke finished the weekend with 36 kills, 16 aces, 5 blocks and 24 digs and got a compliment from his coach Bill Schreier, who compared him to Wheaton Warrenville South alum and Olympic gold medalist Sean Rooney.

The Loyola commit, who didn't start playing until his freshman year, has been racking up the accolades this season. In addition to the Tiger Classic MVP, he was named MVP of the Bison Battle and was named an alternate on the U.S. National Youth Team.

ESPNHS caught up with the MVP, who talked about life, volleyball, the Tiger Classic and California vs. Illinois volleyball.

Wheaton Warrenville South volleyball
Conrad CasteloThomas Jaeschke (17) racked up 36 kills for Wheaton Warrenville South at the Tiger Classic.
ESPNHS: When did you start playing volleyball?
TJ: I started playing volleyball for my school freshman year, which was my first time ever, and then I started club my sophomore year, which was my first real exposure to the sport.

ESPNHS: Who influenced you?
TJ: In life, my biggest influence is my dad. He grew up very poor and built his life around nothing, paid his way through college and dental school, and built his own successful practice.

ESPNHS: Why did you choose to play volleyball over other sports?
TJ: For one simple reason: Tradition. My school's volleyball program is built around winning, and naturally that was what I gravitated toward.

ESPNHS: What have you accomplished thus far in volleyball?
TJ:I was named to the all-tournament team at junior nationals last year. I have been a three-year varsity player at my high school. I had the most kills last season, and was named captain along with Matt Callaway and Matt Nussbaum this season. Most recently, I was named alternate for the youth national team for my age group. Hopefully my future holds more opportunities for me.

ESPNHS: Why did you choose Loyola of Chicago?
TJ:Because of the team. It's a great group of guys and I cannot wait to be a part of it. Also I am getting some academic money from them, which played a big role. Furthermore, I like how Loyola is so close to Chicago, but when you are on the Lakeshore campus you cannot tell how close to the city you are. The atmosphere is great, and I also really like the coaching staff. It seemed like a great fit.

ESPNHS: What other schools were you considering?
TJ:Princeton, Penn State, UCLA and UC San Diego. Obviously all great schools and to be considered by them is truly an honor.

ESPNHS: How do you feel about your high school team this year?
TJ:We’re just getting there. Our setter (Kit Bruzek) did not play club, but honestly he is doing incredible. He is far more advanced than I had expected, and we have a great coach in Mr. Schreier, who works with him every day and he is becoming one of the better setters around.

ESPNHS: Do you feel like you have something to prove?
TJ: I’m not sure about that, but the taste of sectionals last year is definitely still sour in our mouths. We are not trying to prove anyone wrong, just prove that we are the best in state.

ESPNHS: How do you feel you played at the Tiger Classic?
TJ: The Tiger Classic was a good tournament, and our school hadn’t won it in three or four years, so the win was nice. With that being said, our team definitely is not where we need it to be, and the only way we will get there is working every day at practice. There is only one championship we want.

ESPNHS: How did you feel about earning MVP honors?
TJ: Earning MVP honors was nice, but to me that’s really not what it's about. We won the tournament, and that’s what makes me happy. It's nice winning it, but I think our setter Kit deserved MVP honors. He got all-tourney honors, and that was much deserved. With a team of our size, a kid like Kit can easily go unnoticed, and I'm happy to see him getting some recognition.

ESPNHS: How does it feel to be regarded as the No. 1 team in Illinois right now?
TJ: Being No. 1 is overrated. Everyone is gunning for you, and it's a much different match when they play our team. I think so far our team has handled it very well, and hopefully we can continue to handle it all season.

ESPNHS: What are your goals for the rest of the season?
TJ: To win state.

ESPNHS: What are your goals for college and beyond?
TJ: I would like to make an immediate impact on the Loyola team, and have a vital role on the team for a few solid years. Beyond that, if I can play on a professional club that would be incredible, but that’s very far away.

ESPNHS: How do you feel about the growth of men's volleyball in the U.S. in the past few years?
TJ: I love seeing the growth of men's volleyball. What if there was a professional league in the U.S. in 10 years? I think that would be incredible. People do not realize the caliber of athletes on our national team, and they are now starting to, so that's definitely nice to see.

ESPNHS: California and Illinois have the most boys participating in high school volleyball in the United States. Who would win in an all-state all-star game?
TJ: I think California, just due to their size. Volleyball is big in the Northwest part of Illinois, but beyond that it's not too large. In California the sport is huge all over the state. We wouldn’t roll over; it would be a fun game to play.

ESPNHS: What advice do you have for other young players out there?
TJ: I guess I would just say try your hand in any sport you can. Growing up I played soccer, baseball, football, basketball and golf. I think all this contributed to my success in volleyball. It helped me become a more well-rounded athlete. I guess I would just say do whatever you love most. That's what I did. If at first you're not the best, but you love the sport, then one day, with a lot of work, you can get there.