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Penn State having big impact on USA volleyball

UCLA men’s volleyball and U.S. national team head coach John Speraw talks to player Michael Fisher during the match against Penn State Friday in Rec Hall.
UCLA men’s volleyball and U.S. national team head coach John Speraw talks to player Michael Fisher during the match against Penn State Friday in Rec Hall.

A mere 12 months ago, Aaron Russell was beginning his senior season with the Penn State men’s volleyball team.

By the fall, he was helping Team USA win the World Cup. Now he’s playing professionally in Italy, and figures to be back in his U.S. jersey in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

“It’s really awesome knowing there were guys sitting where we are today who are at the level that they are,” Penn State junior outside hitter Chris Nugent said. “It’s really inspiring, pushing us to be the best we can be and always striving to be better than the previous day.”

That Russell has achieved the top level in men’s volleyball is a surprise only in that it came so soon. There was little doubt watching him play in Rec Hall the past four seasons that he had such a future. But usually it takes a lot more seasoning to compete against the wily, experienced men’s players from around the world.

But the U.S. men’s program, with largely the same roster for the past few Olympic tournaments, needed an injection of youth.

“In some respects for the entire quad, we’ve been surprised by the impact of youth on our entire team overall,” U.S. and UCLA coach John Speraw said Friday as his Bruins team visited Rec Hall for a pair of matches. “We knew the summer before that he was going to have the opportunity and the potential to be an impact player in our program, we just didn’t know what the timetable was going to be.”

Russell is not the only one injecting the blue and white into the red, white and blue. Max Holt and Matt Anderson, who were a part of Penn State’s 2008 national title team, also are in line to be on the U.S. roster this summer. All three started on the World Cup team.

And it’s not just the U.S. men’s team that has a Nittany Lion influence. The U.S. women were playing in regional qualifying this week, also earning a berth in Rio. Nicole Fawcett was among the leading point-scorers the first two nights, Alisha Glass was the starting setter and Christa Harmotto Dietzen is the team captain. They are joined by Megan Hodge Easy.

Throw in Puerto Rico’s Dennis Del Valle and Edgardo Goas, and coach Javier Gaspar, who will go through their own qualifying soon, and there could be 10 Nittany Lion Olympians.

“The casual fan doesn’t know what they’ve had in front of them here when the lights go on in Rec Hall on a regular basis for the last 10-12 years,” coach Mark Pavlik said with great pride.

Holt was among the last cut from the 2012 U.S. roster, but learned from that disappointment and has become reliable both at the net and service line.

“Truthfully, he’s earned it times 10,” Speraw said. “The end of the last quad he was in quite a battle. Now he’s our guy and he’s played an incredibly important role for us. I think he’s going to be much better this summer.”

Anderson was the Most Valuable Player of the World Cup last fall, and has been named the USA Volleyball Men’s Indoor Player of the Year each of the past four years.

He has even thrived after Speraw moved him to a new position. Anderson has been a left-side hitter for most of his career, and continues to play there for his Russian pro team, but he moved to a right-side hitter last season.

“That shows how skilled he is at a variety of positions on the court,” Speraw said. “He’s been invaluable. He’s put away so many important volleyballs for us, and he’s going to continue to do that for us this summer.”

What is also impressive, looking at the bigger picture, is that the U.S. continues to be a world power in the sport despite a lack of popularity. There are just 41 Division I and II programs, and 68 in Division III, in the entire country, compared with 334 women’s programs just in Division I. A number of state high school federations don’t even sanction boys’ volleyball as an official sport.

Speraw gives credit for the success to a lot of places, including coaches like Pavlik, and also can see the good fortune of someone like the 6-foot-10 Anderson, who didn’t take the sport seriously until late in high school, blossoming.

“I still marvel that our national team is able to compete at the level that they compete with the talent pool that we’ve had for the last 30 years,” Speraw said. “It’s remarkable that we’ve been able to have our success.”

The men’s college season ends in early May — in Rec Hall at the national championships — and Speraw hopes to be returning to town then. After that, they are concentrating on Rio.

Some former Nittany Lions are part of those preparations, and the current Lions will be watching.

“Shows us where we can go,” sophomore Jalen Penrose said. “The things that they’re doing just inspire us.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT