Volleyball: Rakestraw makes U.S. junior national team

At 7 feet tall, Kevin Rakestraw said he's still growing. He hasn't reached his full potential in volleyball.

Rakestraw, a former Newport Harbor High standout, redshirted as a freshman this past season with the Stanford men's volleyball team. He never played in a match or traveled with Stanford, which made the NCAA championship. He did practice with the team when it was at home and sat on the bench during home matches.

This summer, Rakestraw is seeing a lot more action on the court.

Rakestraw turned 19 on Saturday, the same day he planned to travel with the U.S. men's junior national team to the NORCECA Under-21 Continental Championship in El Salvador. The tournament starts on Monday and ends on Aug. 3.

Rakestraw, a middle blocker, is one of a dozen players making the team. For two weeks, the team worked out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y. Lake Placid also is where the U.S. national hockey team pulled out the "Miracle on Ice" win against the Soviet Union, before claiming the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games.

Rakestraw said the team visited the ice rink where the U.S. hockey team played. Some of his teammates later watched the movie "Miracle" based on the U.S. hockey team's upset of the Soviet Union.

Rakestraw didn't see the movie. Instead, he picked up a book and read.

Rakestraw knows this U.S. men's junior national team won't need a miracle to finish first at the NORCECA Under-21 Continental Championship. The U.S. is the defending champion, having won the tournament two years ago in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"We're definitely one of the favorites," said Rakestraw, whose team joins Barbados, Canada, Cuba, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and St. Lucia in the 10-team tournament. "Cuba should be pretty good."

Rakestraw and the U.S. will see Cuba on the third day of the tournament. The U.S. and Cuba are in the same pool, along with Mexico and Nicaragua. The opener for the U.S. is against Nicaragua on Tuesday at noon.

The top two teams in the tournament qualify for the FIVB Under-21 World Championship next year. That is a major tournament, and if all goes well, Rakestraw looks to return to help the U.S.

Rakestraw will be a sophomore in college by then, and hopefully coming off a year contributing to the Cardinal. Missing last season's memorable run, a second-place finish in the NCAA championship, wasn't easy. While Stanford faced host Loyola Chicago in the final, Rakestraw watched it in Palo Alto, Calif., on a projector at a teammate's house with 30 other people.

Third-seeded Stanford lost the final to top-seeded Loyola Chicago in four sets. Rakestraw said he felt torn, and with good reason. The player leading Loyola Chicago was Cody Caldwell, a former teammate of Rakestraw at Newport Harbor.

"It was tough to watch because he was just going off," Rakestraw said of Caldwell, who earned the tournament MVP award after the junior outside hitter finished with 20 kills and 10 digs, leading the Ramblers to their first NCAA men's volleyball national title. "I wanted to feel happy for him. At the same time, he was playing against my team."

While Caldwell has bragging rights having won an NCAA crown, he missed the cut two years ago to represent the U.S. men's junior national team at the NORCECA Under-21 Continental Championship.

Rakestraw made it this year. He looks to help the U.S. finish with the gold for the third straight time at the tournament.

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