Time of Transition

As the top U.S. men’s veterans get older, a new crop of youthful talent is waiting in the wings.

Daniela Tarantini
36-year-old Donald Suxho sets up teammate Reid Priddy

When USA Volleyball announced the roster for this year’s World League team, Clay Stanley—MVP of the 2008 Olympics when the U.S. men won gold—was not among the 22 players selected. Neither was fellow three-time Olympian, outside hitter Reid Priddy, who was enjoying some well-deserved time off after his professional season overseas.

Stanley injured a knee playing for the national team last year. He was set to play for Lokomotiv Novosibirsk in the Russian Superleague, but missed the entire 2012-13 season due to the injury. The 6'9" veteran was hoping to be ready for the NORCECA Continental Championship at the end of September.

As the summer training block got underway at the American Sports Center in Anaheim, Calif., several young players got the chance to show what they can do. A former assistant coach under Hugh McCutcheon and Alan Knipe, first-year USA head coach John Speraw observed how other countries gave younger guys playing time in the first year of a quad, with the hope that it would pay off down the road.

“In 2009, watching the World League finals, I was struck by some of the new faces. I immediately knew what other coaches were doing,” Speraw said. “They were trying some new guys in the World League to see if [the young players] could help their bid [three] years down the road to win a gold medal.”

There were so many new faces on the court in Anaheim, you could forgive a veteran if he looked around at some of the young players and thought, “Who are you?”

Two-time Olympian, middle blocker David Lee affirmed, “Yeah, that has happened.”

Among the younger competitors in Anaheim was Carson Clark, named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player when he and the UC Irvine squad won the 2012 title. The 6'6" left-handed opposite spent the last season playing professionally in France. To start for the U.S. at that position, Clark would have to overtake Stanley, a player for whom he has great respect and praise.

“I mean, I’d obviously love to be ‘the guy’ but at the same time Clay’s in the best shape of his life right now,” Clark said. “He’s rehabbing harder than he’s ever rehabbed and he looks great out here so you know he’s [going to] be dominant and pushing for that spot.”

The Santa Barbara, Calif., native was Stanley’s backup at the 2010 FIVB World Championship in Italy, where the U.S. men finished sixth. Clark has plenty of other competition at opposite, including 6'8" Evan Patak, who was an alternate for the 2008 and 2012 Olympic squads.

Two other young opposites that Speraw said impressed him in the early days of training were Jeff Menzel and Murphy Troy, the 2011 VBM Player of the Year. The 6'8" former USC Trojan played the last two seasons for Andreoli Latina in Italy’s Serie A League. Menzel was seeing time at outside hitter as well.

Speraw also gave the thumbs up to outside hitters Garrett Muagututia (UCLA), Brad Lawson (Stanford), and 2012 VBM Player of the Year Tony Ciarelli (USC), the youngest player on the 2013 U.S. World League roster at 23. These young guns will have to contend with 2012 Olympian Paul Lotman and Jayson Jablonsky, an alternate for London, for the position of outside hitter.

Speraw, and everyone else, has also been impressed with Matt Anderson for quite a while now. The 6-foot-10 outside hitter was a starter on the London Olympic team, and barring injury, the Penn State grad will be a fixture on the USA roster for years to come.

“Matt should be here for the next two quads; he’s young enough where he can impact this team for a long time,” Speraw said.

Anderson is 26. By the time the Rio Olympics roll around, both Stanley and Priddy will be 38. That’s not especially old if you’re an accountant, but a volleyball player that age might need to adjust his training somewhat as he preps for a major tournament.

“I think we have to do as good a job as we can to make sure that the [older players] are able to play at a high level. I think when a guy is 35, he has to train and take care of his body in a different way than a 25-year-old,” Speraw said. “And of course he has enough experience where maybe he doesn’t need to train as much as a young guy that doesn’t have the high level of experience yet.”

The U.S. needs to develop young talent, Speraw added, in case a veteran retires or his performance slips because of age. Or a young player might simply prove he’s good enough to earn a roster spot.

This year’s World League team is a bit younger than the 2012 version. According to USAV, the average age of last year’s roster was 29.6. With a few players from the 2012 team taking a break, the average age of the 2013 team is 27.1. That number might have been even lower had BYU standout outside hitter Taylor Sander been able to play this summer. Speraw has said he thinks “very highly of Sander” but the 6'4" 2013 VBM Player of the Year who helped the Cougars to a runner-up finish in the NCAA championship match as a junior, is taking summer classes.

Not all older players view this change as a threat.

“We need to have good players in the pipeline coming up that are [going to] take over for when I’m gone and for when Clay and Rich and Donald and Reid are gone,” David Lee said.

Setter Donald Suxho is also taking some time off. Suxho, the former USC Trojan, and libero Rich Lambourne are both in their late 30s (Suxho is 37, Lambourne 38), but both play positions that are usually somewhat less physically demanding than opposite, middle blocker, or outside hitter.

“I think Rich can continue to play at a high level even as he gets older because the wear and tear is different for a libero than a setter, and a setter to a hitter,” Speraw said.

Suxho’s back-up at setter last year, Brian Thornton, is returning this year. He’s joined by former Stanford star Kawika Shoji, and a pair of tall setters in 6'9" Kyle Caldwell (UCLA) and 6'8" Ryan Ammerman (UC Irvine). Shoji’s brother Erik, who also played at Stanford, is one of two other liberos on the roster, along with Hawaii’s Alfee Reft and Lambourne.

Despite all the youth penetrating the squad, a younger middle blocker might find it harder to crack the U.S. lineup. All three middles from the London Olympic team are returning – Lee, < Russell Holmes, and David Smith. Six-foot-nine Max Holt, an alternate for the 2012 Olympic team, is also in the mix. Matt Rawson (Hawaii), 26, is the fifth middle listed on the World League roster.

When it comes to evaluating all this new talent, it likely helps that Speraw, current head coach at UCLA, spent 10 seasons at UC Irvine and led them to three national titles.

“I am very familiar with the talent base because I have been coaching at the university [level] for a long time and I’ve had the benefit of working with the national team now for the last couple of quads and know all the veterans.”

Lots of decisions remain for Speraw and his staff as they assemble a team that has the 2016 Olympics in its sights. One advantage an older team has is experience, and Speraw plans to take full advantage of that.

Originally published in August 2013

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