Battle for Volleyball Team Pits Veterans Against Youth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fred Sturm took hundreds of recruiting trips during his 13 seasons as Stanford's volleyball coach.

But perhaps no trip he took was more important for the future of U.S. volleyball than the one to Italy in January 1991.

The day after he was hired as the U.S. national team's coach, Sturm was on a plane to Italy for face-to-face meetings with some of the top players in the Italian professional leagues.

American players.

Former Olympic gold-medalists Steve Timmons, Doug Partie, Jeff Stork, Craig Buck, Karch Kiraly and Bob Ctvrtlik were Sturm's targets.

Sturm persuaded all but Kiraly to return to the U.S. team. Kiraly decided to play on the beach tour instead of returning to the team's training center in San Diego.

"When I first took the job, one of my primary goals was to get the best guys to come out for the national team," he said. "Those players I contacted, I felt, were the best in the world. I went to talk to them, and find out the interests of each.

"Now, 18 months later, I think we have the best team we could have in the gym."

Sturm took over a team that had finished 13th at the 1990 World Championships in Brazil, but improved to a third-place finish at the 1991 World Cup in Japan.

The young team showed promise, beating world powers Italy and the Soviet Union in World League matches last season. But the Americans weren't consistently defeating the top teams in the world.

"He looked at how the (U.S.) team had been doing," Partie said. "He knew something had to change."

How well the United States does in the Olympics this summer in Barcelona, might depend on how well Sturm can bridge a generation gap.

Buck and Timmons will celebrate their 34th birthdays this fall. Middle blocker Bryan Ivie and setter Dan Greenbaum recently turned 22. The team's average age is 25 years, five months.

Will the starting lineup be thirtysomething . . . or twentysomething?

Sturm has only two months decide. He will cut the roster from 17 to 12 by June 27, making the next six World League matches, including one May 17 against Japan at the Bren Center, crucial.

The U.S. team will try to win an unprecedented third Olympic gold medal at Barcelona, but the Americans are far from the favorites.

The former Olympians returned to the team April 27, and the United States will have played together only four months when it leaves for Barcelona. Meanwhile, many of the other medal contenders--Italy, Cuba, Brazil and the Unified team--will have been together for the past four to eight years.

"We have much less time to prepare for this than any previous Olympics," Sturm said. "We're going to have to be very efficient.

"I don't spend much time thinking about (the pressure to win a third medal). Every second I spend thinking about it is a second away from preparing this team. It's a distraction right now."

Preparation, and experience, is the key, Sturm said.

Most players on last year's World League roster had played about 100 international matches.

But Sturm's returning players have more than twice the experience: Stork has played in 260, Ctvrtlik in 340, Timmons in 412 and Buck 484.

They have the talent and the experience, but will they be able to pull together in such a short time?

It depends on whom you ask.

"I don't think we'll have any problems meshing the old guys with the new guys," said Timmons, a former Newport Harbor High star. "Everyone knows we have to come in and battle for a spot on the roster.

"A lot of us have played together before and we know the system and the philosophy behind it. We've all been playing since we left, so it's not like we're coming out of retirement or something."

Laguna Beach's Scott Fortune, the team captain and a 1988 gold medalist, welcomed the veteran players' return.

"We have 15 or 16 good players fighting to be part of the team," Fortune said. "I've already seen the level of play pick up in the first week with them back. I think it makes us that much better to be competing for spots.

"But a lot of the younger guys don't know how the older guys react in certain situations. It's going to take some time for them to accept being yelled at on the court by some of the older players."

The tension has already started to mount.

Allen Allen of Kanehoe, Hawaii, was cut from the team's World League roster two weeks ago, along with Costa Mesa's Mark Arnold and Princeton's Marin Gjaja. Allen and the other players still practice with the team, but their chances of making the Olympic team are slim.

"It's sad to say, but some of the guys who have come back really aren't that motivated," Allen said. "I think Partie and Stork are good for the program because they've come back and worked hard. but some of the guys aren't motivated at all. I say, 'Why the hell come back then?' "

Sturm said he doesn't have an easy job. With the former Olympians returning, he might have to cut players who have spent as many as the past three years with the program. Allen, Arnold and Gjaja are only the first casualties.

"It's a difficult situation for Allen and Mark," Sturm said. "We haven't got to the point yet where we're telling people they can no longer be a part of the team. We're not down to picking the 12 yet. We're just developing roles and lineups."

Allen's early exit from the World League roster came as somewhat of a surprise. He joined the national team in 1989 and started in 1990. Although only 6 feet 2, his 40-inch vertical jump made him a factor at the net and one of the team's best blockers.

"It's tough because I've been kicking butt," he said. "Those (Olympic) guys come back and play for a couple of months. They call this a tryout (period), but some of us don't even get a chance to compete for a spot."

But Timmons and the other older players argue that they were paying their dues with the team when some of the younger players were still in junior high and high school. Timmons played with the team from 1981-89.

"Many of us put in eight years before some of them (younger players) even tried out," he said. "If there's a problem, we can say, 'Hey, we put in eight years before you put in your one or two.' "

Sturm is convinced he can find a winning combination.

Olympic rules allow him some freedom in piecing together his lineup.

He must keep at least three middle blockers but take no more than four. The same applies to swing hitters. Two setters and two opposite hitters and a back-row specialist would round out the lineup.

One of the most competitive positions is middle blocker. Buck and Partie are likely starters, with Ivie as a reserve.

Competition for the fourth middle blocker, should Sturm decide to keep one, would be a wide open race between Dan Hanan, a former Edison High standout, former USC player Trevor Schirman and Arnold.

Fortune and Ctvrtlik are expected to be the starting swing hitters. Former Mater Dei standout Nick Becker, Fountain Valley's Carlos Briceno, Uvaldo Acosta and Allen are candidates for the two remaining spots.

Former Cal State Northridge player Bob Samuelson, considered one of the national team's most versatile players, could make the Olympic squad as either a middle blocker or an outside hitter.

"The ideal situation is to find a player who can do a number of things," Sturm said.

Timmons likely will start opposite the setter. Former Dana Hills High standout Brent Hilliard, the 1992 NCAA player of the year at Cal State Long Beach, is a longshot as Timmons' backup along with Gjaja.

Stork is a cinch as the starting setter, with either Greenbaum or Javier Gaspar backing him up. Look for Eric Sato, a 1988 gold medalist, to make the team as a back-row specialist.

"I think we have a nice blend of youth and veterans," Sturm said. "We have players who have a lot of experience at winning at the international level. Winning gold medals. Winning in Italy. The only thing we lack is time together on the court."

And they'll miss Kiraly, a two-time gold medalist who was considered the heart and soul of the 1988 team.

Kiraly, a Santa Barbara native now living in San Clemente, decided to play on the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals' beach tour. His wife recently gave birth to their second son, and Kiraly thought the travel with the World League would require too much time away from his family.

Kiraly's absence has led to some discussion. Who would be the team's leader? Who would replace his explosiveness as a swing hitter?

The answer might lie with Fortune, a role player on the 1988 team who was best known for pounding the final kill in the gold-medal match.

But for the past four years, Fortune played the leading role on a team in transition. For two seasons, he was the only player remaining from the 1988 Olympic team.

"My role has changed," he said. "It takes a lot of the pressure off me to have six solid players on the court. I don't have to be so much of a workhorse.

"But there will still be some pressure, because I'll get served (to) all the time and everyone will be judging my game. They'll ask, 'Can he do that as well as Karch did?' And I don't really want that."

Two years ago, frustrated after a loss to Japan in the final World League match of the season, he was ready to abandon the national team for the Italian professional leagues.

"I was on the edge," he said. "I guess I've seen all the highs and lows of this team in the last year and a half. I've seen the younger team come together and develop into a good group of international players.

"There was no way I was going to quit the team. Jon Root and Troy Tanner had already bailed out for Italy, but I stuck with it."

U.S. National Volleyball Team

The U.S. team will carry 17 players on its roster until June 27, when it will be cut to 12 in preparation for the Olympics in Barcelona, July 25-Aug. 9. Here's a look at how the roster might shape up by the time cuts are made.

PLAYERS WHO ARE IN:

Name Pos. Ht. Age Oly. Medals Craig Buck Middle blocker 6-8 33 '84-88, Gold Bob Ctvrtlik Outside hitter 6-4 28 1988, Gold Scott Fortune Outside hitter 6-6 25 1988, Gold Bryan Ivie Middle blocker 6-7 22 None Doug Partie Middle blocker 6-6 30 1988, Gold Jeff Stork Setter 6-3 31 1988, Gold Steve Timmons Opposite setter 6-5 33 '84-88, Gold

Name Hometown/College Craig Buck Tarzana/Pepperdine Bob Ctvrtlik Long Beach/Pepperdine Scott Fortune Laguna Beach/Stanford Bryan Ivie Manhattan Beach/USC Doug Partie Santa Barbara/UCLA Jeff Stork Topanga Canyon/ Pepperdine Steve Timmons Newport Beach/USC

PLAYERS WHO ARE ON THE BUBBLE:

Name Pos. Ht. Age Oly. Medals Uvaldo Acosta Outside hitter 5-11 26 None Nick Becker Outside hitter 6-4 23 None Carlos Briceno Outside hitter 6-4 24 None Javier Gaspar Setter 6-0 25 None Dan Greenbaum Setter 6-3 22 None Dan Hanan Middle blocker 6-6 24 None Brent Hilliard Outside hitter 6-5 22 None Bob Samuelson Middle blocker 6-5 25 None Eric Sato Back row 5-11 25 1988, Gold Trevor Schirman Middle blocker 6-6 24 None

Name Hometown/College Uvaldo Acosta El Paso, Tex./ George Mason Nick Becker Newport Beach/USC Carlos Briceno Fountain Valley/Hawaii Javier Gaspar Rio Piedras, P.R./ Penn State Dan Greenbaum Rolling Hills/USC Dan Hanan Huntington Beach/ Stanford Brent Hilliard Dana Point/ CS Long Beach Bob Samuelson Marina Del Rey/ CS Northridge Eric Sato Santa Monica/Pepperdine Trevor Schirman Waimanolo, Hawaii/UCLA

CUT FROM WORLD LEAGUE ROSTER:

Name Pos. Ht. Age Oly. Medals Allen Allen Outside hitter 6-3 24 None Mark Arnold Middle blocker 6-6 28 None Marin Gjaja Opposite setter 6-5 21 None

Name Hometown/College Allen Allen Kaneohe, Hawaii/Hawaii Mark Arnold Costa Mesa/Pepperdine Marin Gjaja Schenectady, N.Y./ Princeton

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