Former Westchester Volleyball Star Seeks National Recognition

Special to the Times

Bob Samuelson has been a member of the U.S. national volleyball team for less than two months, but he's already making--and marking--a name for himself.

During a recent five-match, five-city national tour between the United States and the Soviet Union, Samuelson--shorn of hair on the head that sits atop his 6-foot-5, 220-pound body--left an indelible imprint on at least one fan in Sacramento when he obliged a bald man's request to autograph his Samuelson-like pate.

And a recent issue of Sports Illustrated features a striking two-page color photograph of red-haired Steve Timmons, black-haired Mark Arnold and no-haired Samuelson standing side by side at attention before a match.

"I almost feel like a rock star," Samuelson said last week by phone from Puerto Rico, where the United States finished third in the biennial NORCECA zone championships. "We played the Soviets in Detroit, and after the match there were hundreds of people outside the arena, girls screaming and everyone going nuts.

"It's different, but I can handle it. I dig on it. I've always tried to be a crowd-pleaser."

Samuelson, 22, impressed Bill Neville, the coach of the national team, in May during an open tryout at Pepperdine and a follow-up invitational tryout at the team's training headquarters in San Diego. The former Westchester High School and Cal State Northridge standout was one of only two players--Brian Ivie of USC was the other--who made the traveling team for the U.S.-Soviet tour and the USA Cup tournament that concluded at the Forum two weeks ago.

"Bob is an enthusiastic big man who plays with the kind of fire I like to start with," said Neville, who succeeded Marv Dunphy as national team coach after the 1988 Olympics. "He has pretty good instincts in terms of playing the ball. He doesn't have a lot of experience doing it, but his ball-handling skills are natural and reactive.

"He's raw now. I don't want to call him a project as much as a prospect."

Samuelson strengthened his prospects of joining the national team with a strong performance last season for Northridge, which was 11-20 overall and 5-15 in the powerful Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Assn.. Samuelson averaged 6.5 kills, 2.03 digs and 1.10 blocks per game for the Matadors, and had an .353 attack percentage.

Neville said Samuelson arrived at the tryouts highly recommended by college coaches. Samuelson, however, approached them as if he were from outer space.

"When you don't come from a powerhouse like UCLA, USC, Pepperdine or some of those other schools, you kind of have to reprove yourself all over again," said Samuelson, who was selected second-team all conference and an honorable mention All-American by Volleyball Monthly magazine. "I didn't take anything for granted at the tryouts. I played like I was a nobody who had to make a name for himself."

One of the main reasons Neville included Samuelson on the traveling team was to expose him to Timmons and Karch Kiraly, two of the world's biggest names in volleyball, who retired from the national team after the USA Cup with gold medals from the 1984 and '88 Olympics.

"I knew Bob wasn't going to contribute a lot, but I thought, perhaps, he'd soak up some of the aura that Kiraly and Timmons have brought to the team," Neville said. "I was hoping that would really get him motivated."

Samuelson played briefly against the Soviets and for a more extended period against South Korea during a USA Cup match at UC Irvine.

"You can definitely feel it, an aura or whatever, when you're playing with these guys," Samuelson said. "They crank up the intensity level and bring you up just being around them. It teaches you about confidence and how to get the most out of yourself."

Samuelson's attitude was far different when he began playing volleyball at Westchester High. Back then, a sunny day or good waves were reason enough to skip practice and go to the beach.

His work ethic improved slightly at Pierce College, where he was named the state's player of the year after leading the Brahmas to a 24-1 record and the state championship.

Samuelson redshirted one season at Northridge, then spent the last two years as a dominant hitter and personality for the Matadors.

His role with the national team, however, is a new one.

"I'm struggling here to be one of the average guys," Samuelson said. "I'm working my butt off harder than I ever have just to be a little bit better.

"In college, I felt I could win the game and it was, 'Keep setting me, keep setting me.' Here you can't do that.

"You have to be so much more of a complete player."

Neville said he plans to experiment with Samuelson at the quick hitter, opposite hitter and middle blocking positions. He likens Samuelson's potential influence to that of former national team member Craig Buck, who at 6-8 was a force regardless of whether he had the ball.

"I like a big, charismatic guy in the middle who is capable of distracting the other team," Neville said. "Bob has that kind of potential just by the way he comes in the gym. He doesn't hide, and you can't camouflage him."

With the conclusion of the NORCECA championships, the U. S. team has returned to its training base in San Diego. Samuelson hopes to further enhance his chances of playing on the traveling team that will embark on trips to Sweden, the Soviet Union and Japan through December. He is anxious to leave his imprint.

"We're going to have to build our own dynasty," Samuelson said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World