He doesn’t even turn 21 until May 8. But Micah Christenson’s age, evidently, isn’t a factor.
“He has a real opportunity to be a great American setter,” U.S. Men’s National Team coach John Speraw said. “There’s no question.”
Currently, Christenson is the setter at Southern California, where his Trojans will likely be in the NCAA national-championship hunt. But since last year, the 6-foot-6 junior from Hawaii has been wearing two different uniforms, one for USC and the other for the USA.
Last fall, a typical day would see him wake up at 6:30, drive to Anaheim for national team practice from 9 a.m. to noon, race back up to Los Angeles for lifting with the SC team, and then have class until about 9 p.m. “It was a hectic semester,” said Christenson.
So when he got home from Japan in November after playing at the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup, Christenson admitted, “It was a relief just to be playing for USC and going to school.”
“But,” he quickly added, “it was something I was privileged to do. It wasn’t a bummer. It was an amazing opportunity.”
Eighth-year USC head coach Bill Ferguson said simply, “It was a lot to ask, but we’re into developing leaders around here. That’s just not my team, that’s the university athletic department. We have more Olympic athletes than any athletic department in the country, so [Christenson] has peers around him all the time that he can draw experience from. And our academic support staff, our athletic administration, everyone here is used to doing this. For an aspiring Olympic athlete, there’s no better place to be.”
To his point, Ferguson referenced this information from the official USC website:
“USC’s Olympians have won 587 places on Olympic teams, and have taken home 135 gold medals, 87 silver, and 65 bronze. If USC were a country entering its athletes in the Olympic Games, its 287 all-time Summer Olympics medals would place it 16th among all participating countries. And in six different Olympics, USC’s medal count would have positioned it among the top 10 competing nations.”
It’s worth noting that there are three previous USC setters who made Olympic teams. Of course, at crosstown rival UCLA they’ve done pretty well in that regard, too. And Speraw, also the UCLA men’s coach, has had his eye on Christenson for a while. After all, they competed against each other the past two college seasons, in 2012 when Speraw was at UC Irvine and last year in his first season as head coach at UCLA.
He also had the chance to watch Christenson train with the junior national team.
“If you had asked me about this last May, I wouldn’t have figured any of this would have happened this quickly,” Christenson said.
But Speraw, the first-year Olympic coach, saw his team struggle in the FIVB World League last June and July.
“Our setting was not where we wanted it to be,” Speraw said. “So we brought Micah in and he clearly won the battle statistically. Surprisingly for a guy that’s 20 years old, he came in with great poise, was calm, related well to the veterans, and the environment was not bigger than him. That was very impressive to see. He can not only set, but he can serve for points, he’s not a blocking liability, he can dig, he can play the whole game, he can be effective offensively.”
Christenson got into action in the NORCEA Continental Championship in Langley, Canada, in late September. With him as the starting setter, the U.S. won all four of its matches to win the tournament for the first time since 2007.
In Japan, the competition was steep and the USA went 2-3, beating Japan and Italy, but losing to Brazil, Iran, and Russia. But Christenson had established his place.
“He’s not where he needs to be yet, but I think he can be a great setter, and we’re certainly going to commit to that development,” said Speraw.
In the meantime, there’s the USC season that Christenson and his teammates see as a chance at redemption from last year. Two seasons ago, with Christenson at the helm as a freshman setter, USC lost in the NCAA title match to UC Irvine, coached at the time by Speraw.
But 2013 was awful.
The Trojans went 6-18 and didn’t even make the MPSF tournament, much less the NCAA final.
“I wish it hadn’t happened that way, but I learned more from last season than I had in my entire career playing volleyball,” Christenson said. “It’s tough to experience at the time. I had never been in that situation of losing. I lost more last year than I had in my entire high school career, playing both volleyball and basketball.”
Speaking of which, Christenson was offered a chance by the University of Hawai’i to play both sports.
“When I go back, I’m looked at as the guy who played basketball. Pretty funny.”
He said the only two schools he seriously considered for just volleyball were UC Santa Barbara and USC, where he is majoring in human biology with a business minor. The plan was to get into the physical therapy business, but that will have to wait until after volleyball. However, Christenson did an internship with a PT clinic in Hawaii. “It was over the summer. Actually two summers ago,” he said with a laugh as he caught himself. “This summer I was pretty busy.”
His coach, Ferguson, is understandably a big fan, noting that Christenson is not only a great player but a wonderful person.
“He’s an even better human being than he is a volleyball player,” Ferguson said. “And he’s an exceptional volleyball player.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I love playing for him,” Christenson said. “He’s a great guy. He relates to his players and he’s more than a coach, [he’s] a mentor and a friend.”
What’s more, he’s been very flexible with Christenson’s schedule, something that both Ferguson and Speraw discussed as well. “We talked about how we were going to work together on it,” Ferguson said. They might be fierce and occasionally contentious rivals in college volleyball, but both put the well-being of the players and the national team first.
Ferguson, Christenson said, has been “very accommodating with not only my goals but our goals.”
Ferguson understands the big picture. After all, another of his former players, Tony Ciarelli, the star of that USC team two years ago, is also on the national team. Of course, two years ago, things were easier when Christenson had the outstanding power and range of Ciarelli to set to.
Last year there was a lot more chasing balls, which is where Christenson’s best attribute came in: his quick feet.
“He’s an explosive runner and setting has a lot to do with quick sprints,” Ferguson said. “That starting and stopping ability allows him to jump vertically rather than float as he sets it. A lot of that comes from his training as a basketball player.”
Of course Christenson has great hands, and Ferguson remarked on the young setter’s ability. “His delivery of the ball is very quick. He gets it out of his hands very quickly and does that with touch.”
He comes by that type of athleticism honestly. His father, Robert, saw a potentially outstanding basketball career derailed by a knee injury, but he still played at Hawai’i-Hilo where he met his wife, Charlene, an All-American volleyball player who won three national titles at the school.
So their son, whose middle name is Makanamaikalani, certainly had a good chance to be athletic. The Hawaiian name means “gift from heaven” because, as Micah explained, “I almost died in my mother’s womb, and it was a gift from God that I made it out alive.” No wonder Speraw says, “Right now he’s the best. He had a great, great summer for us.”
Speraw, however, and his UCLA team, represent the challenges Christenson faces this spring in the college season. Clearly, USC is on a mission after last year.
“It was definitely an eye-opening experience for me, especially coming off the final four and a national-championship game,” said Christenson, a USC team co-captain. “I got to see a very wide spectrum of what it takes to succeed. That contrast helped me see what makes for success and what makes for failure.”
Ferguson, for one, has seen the result of a tough season.
“It is the best fall we’ve had since I’ve been the head coach,” said Ferguson. “By far.”
Oddly enough, one reason he thinks the Trojans prospered in the fall was because Christenson was gone. It gave playing time to others and made teammates step up. Ferguson benefitted from a similar situation prior to the 2012 season when Ciarelli went to the Pan Am Games, and that paid off the same way.
“Everyone is an extreme competitor on this team. This past summer was huge for us. We didn’t lose a step, we gained a step,” Christenson said, mentioning that the players worked really hard in all areas, including the weight room. “I’m really proud to say we have significantly improved not only in strength but in volleyball awareness.”
All that will be needed this spring in the match-to-match battle that is the MPSF, which includes, not coincidentally, USC playing host to UCLA on Feb. 9 and then a trip to Westwood on March 15.
“He hates losing to SC,” Christenson said of Speraw. “And it’s great to know that it irks him. We have a relationship that’s deeper than the SC-UCLA relationship. It’s a pretty funny dynamic.”
It’s likely there will be a lot of pretty fun dynamics to come in Christenson’s career as the next two years unfold, starting with this spring.
“I truly believe we can win not just the MPSF championship, but the national championship,” Christenson said. “I know that’s every team’s goal in the NCAA, but I truly believe we have the tools, the mental capacity, and the coaching staff to do that. And we are getting closer and closer every day.”
You say Micah, I say Micha
They might spell their first names differently, but Micha Hancock of Penn State and Micah Christenson of USC both pronounce their name “Mike-Ah.”
“That’s crazy,” Hancock said. “I didn’t know that.”
Hancock already won the NCAA title, leading Penn State to the women’s national championship in December. Christenson would love to do the same thing in May for the Trojan men, making for two national-champion junior setters with basically the same name.
“That’s pretty weird, to be honest,” Hancock said.
Christenson, too, was taken aback by the coincidence.
“I have not met her, but she’s a very talented setter,” Christenson said. “And I would love to have two Micah/Micha national-champ setters this year!”
Originally published in April 2014