Ceman Proves Volleyball Is a Thinking Man's Game

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When you think of a typical high school volleyball player, Canyon Ceman fits the image perfectly. He is 6-4, blond and handsome.

But Ceman is much more than a typical volleyball player. He can discuss electrochemistry as freely as he can spike or set a volleyball.

In fact, his academic reputation is even more impressive than his volleyball skill.

Ceman, 17, has never had a grade lower than an A in his 12 years of public education.

He is the senior setter for Mira Costa High's volleyball team. The Mustangs, unbeaten in 21 matches, are the top-ranked team in USA Today's Top 25 poll.

Five of Mira Costa's six starters, including Ceman, are taller than 6-3. But it isn't hard to find the brains behind all that brawn.

"Volleyball is at least 50% a mental sport," Mira Costa Coach Mike Cook said. "You could have a team of physical giants, but if they weren't tough upstairs, you wouldn't have a good team."

In volleyball, Ceman's name is mentioned with Aaron Boone of Huntington Beach Edison and Lloy Ball of Ft. Wayne, Ind., as the top prep setters in the nation.

Saturday night, Ceman will anchor Mira Costa's quest for a perfect season when the Mustangs (21-0) meet Edison (17-1) for the Southern Section 4-A Division championship at 7:30 at Marina High in Huntington Beach.

Tuesday night, Ceman helped his team to a 15-4, 15-2, 15-9 victory over San Marcos of Santa Barbara at Redondo High.

Ceman, who also played basketball for Mira Costa, has found the perfect college match for his scholar-athlete skills. Next year, he'll attend Stanford--a powerhouse in both volleyball and academics--on a partial athletic scholarship.

On Friday, Ceman received a letter from Bill Neville, the U.S. national volleyball team coach. Neville invited Ceman to a two-week tryout and training session this summer at the USA Volleyball National Team Center in San Diego.

Within a span of weeks, several of Ceman's long-term goals are falling into place.

One goal is to play for the national team in either the 1992 Barcelona Olympics or the 1996 Olympic Games in Athens. Neville's letter is a step in that direction.

Another goal was to graduate from high school with a 4.0 grade-point average (actually higher because most of Ceman's classes have been honors classes). On June 21--his birthday--Ceman will be a valedictorian when Mira Costa's Class of '90 graduates.

Another goal is an undefeated season for Mira Costa, a team that had the marks of greatness before the season started.

"We decided we wanted to be the best high school volleyball team that ever played," Ceman said.

So far, the Mustangs have lived up to their billing. The team has lost only two games, both of those coming in a five-game Mira Costa victory at Edison in March.

Cook expects the rematch to be equally tough. Edison is the second-ranked team in the 4-A behind Mira Costa.

"We'll play with more intensity from beginning to end this time around," Cook said. "A lot of that comes from respect. The first time we played, we thought Edison would roll over after we won the first two games. And that's not the way it happened."

At the center of Saturday's action will be Ceman, who has the physique of an outside hitter, but the all-around court skills of a setter.

He's an accomplished beach player, which helps explain his versatility.

When Ceman returned from the Olympic Festival in Norman, Okla., last summer, where he had been the setter on the gold medal West team, he headed straight for the beach.

Ceman and David Swatik--a 6-4 outside hitter for Mira Costa--teamed up to play several two-man amateur tournaments, winning one in Playa del Rey to earn their "AA" ratings by the California Beach Volleyball Assn.

A "AAA" rating is only one step away from professional beach volleyball.

"When you play on the beach, you have to be able to do it all--dig, set, serve, spike and block," Ceman said.

In Mira Costa's scheme, however, Ceman isn't the one pounding the ball to the floor.

"Canyon can hammer, but we've taken his hammer away," said Cook, who moved Ceman into strictly a setter's role midway through the season. "So Canyon isn't running up the glory stats, but he's probably most proud of the fact that we're 21-0."

Ceman uses his powerful legs--he jokes that his left leg is longer than his right from using it to take off for slam dunks on the basketball court--to pop accurate sets. Ceman can deliver a volleyball on target up to 35 feet away--nearly all the way across the court.

"People think that setting is all in the hands," Cook said. "But correct setting is total body movement. Those huge, strong legs make it easy for Canyon to set the ball long distances. Referees often tell me they're astounded with how far he can set the ball."

Not surprisingly, Ceman is also an intelligent setter.

"You don't see him doing too many dumb things," Cook said. "He doesn't set into two-man blocks, for instance. He has a knack for isolating his hitters one-on-one."

He also has a knack for winning in all facets of life.

Ceman was part of the four-man team that recently won Mira Costa's annual "Scholar Quiz," a instant-recall trivia competition based on the old College Bowl television show.

Ceman's group beat out 64 other four-person teams for the title and first prize: a $100 savings bond to each member of the team.

Ceman, who specialized in math and science questions for his quartet, still has his savings bond from his team's victory in that same competition last year.

"I'm waiting for the bond to mature," he said.

Ceman, who hasn't missed a day of school at Mira Costa, has already passed advanced-placement examinations in European history, American history, and Spanish.

Last week, he took four more advanced placement exams in economics, calculus, English and chemistry.

If successful in all four tests--a score of 3 on a 5-point scale is passing--Ceman will have more than a year's worth of college credits when he begins work at Stanford as an economics major.

He would use his head start for either a double major or a master's degree in four years.

Ceman said the closest he came to getting a B was in honors physics last year. But he managed an A for earning the classes' highest average on lab assignments.

Despite his obvious gifts, Ceman is a serious, polite and down-to-earth young man. His mother, Sandra Ceman, an administrator for the city of Redondo Beach, said the family "hasn't had to make the doors any wider for his head yet."

The parents have pointed, rather than pushed Canyon in his current direction. His father, George, is a engineering manager for TRW.

"If there's something out there that Canyon can't do, it hasn't been put in front of him yet," George Ceman said. "Obviously, I'm proud of him, but I always remind him that there are bigger and better challenges out there and not to get too comfortable. But he always seems to bend to the task."

Not everything has come easily to young Ceman. His father recalls that Canyon is a bit shy around girls and, for a while, he had trouble learning to drive a stick shift.

There's another Achilles' heel, Sandra Ceman pointed out.

"He doesn't seem to be able to push the buttons on the washing machine too well," she said. "It's not that he doesn't know how, though. Sometimes I think he'd rather watch me do it."

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