If asked to name the jewel of the sports programs at Pepperdine University, a school with more than modest success in basketball, water polo, tennis and baseball, one might think first of its volleyball team.
And with good reason.
The team won a national championship in 1978 and back-to-back titles the past two seasons.
The Pepperdine volleyball teams are obviously talented, but they usually have been led by a superstar, a player the others rally around.
That player now is Troy Tanner, the former Los Altos High School star, who has paid his dues to achieve star status.
During Tanner's first two years at Malibu, the Waves were loaded with talent. As a freshman during the 1983 season, Tanner, then a setter, watched Jeff Stork, in the last of three straight years of All-American standing, hold center stage.
In the 1985 season (Tanner was on a Mormon mission in 1984), Pepperdine won the national crown behind NCAA player of the year, Bob Ctvrtlik. The Waves were 25-2, and although Tanner was beginning to emerge as a force, he was still just another player on a team of stars.
Tanner watched, learned and waited.
Stardom came last season when Tanner was a junior and his all-around play at the outside hitter position led many to call him the best player in the college ranks. He was an All-American last year, and he's considered a favorite to make the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.
And he led Pepperdine to its second straight title in 1986.
"Although we had four All-Americans on our team last year, I think it's safe to say that Troy is our leader," said Rod Wilde, now in his second season as coach of the Waves. "Overall, we rely on Troy. He's just a standout; he does everything well, from blocking to hitting to setting."
Tall and lean (6-4, 200 pounds), Tanner is big and strong enough to spike one down his competitors' throats, yet graceful
and smart enough to play a game of finesse.
Like a quarterback in football, Tanner directs his teammates on the floor, although he never yells. He is the perfect example of that sports cliche, the "quiet leader."
"I try to lead by example," he said. "I don't have to go out and yell and scream--we have guys like Matt (Rigg) and Rob (Scott) to do that. I know that if I just do my job, the guys will respect that, and hopefully follow me."
"He's a great inspiration to our team because he's such a good player," Rigg said. "He doesn't have to be that vocal. Being the only setter on the team, I know that if I have a problem, I can go to him and he'll put the ball away."
Tanner, now a senior, hopes to match last year's success when he had 305 kills and a .352 hitting mark.
When the season ends, Tanner will begin tryouts for the Olympic team. He trained with the U.S. National Team last summer, traveling to Russia for the Goodwill Games. The coach of the U.S. team, Marv Dunphy, was Pepperdine's coach until Wilde took over last season. Dunphy recruited Tanner, the former Los Altos High star and All-CIF standout to Pepperdine.
"There was just one spot open to go to Russia," Tanner said. "Thirty guys tried out, and the day before we left Dunphy said, 'OK, Tanner, you're in.' It was a great feeling, because I felt I played the best of the guys he brought in.
"I didn't play a whole lot, and I knew I wouldn't. I expected to sit on the bench. But the best thing was just playing with these guys. I learned a lot."
Stork, starting center on the U.S. team, said Tanner "will help the national team, whether it be in '88 or '92. Troy's a great volleyball player."
Tanner's success began when he chose Pepperdine as his college.
"Going to Pepperdine was an easy decision, because I liked the coach and the area," Tanner said. "Plus, my dad wanted me to go there. The only other school that was interested in me was UCLA. I wasn't a big name coming out of high school."
As a part-time starter as a freshman, Tanner was named a second team All-American. But his volleyball career was put on hold after that first year when he left on an 18-month Mormon mission to Japan.
His parents, very supportive of his volleyball playing, weren't worried about what 18 months would do to his skills.
"We knew what kind of mental ability he had, so we knew he'd get his physical ability back as soon as he returned," said his mother, Lucille.