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Growing Into the Game : Fuerbringer Gets Serious, Makes Mark in Volleyball

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stanford volleyball Coach Ruben Nieves attended the 1991 State high school basketball finals in Oakland to catch a glimpse of Estancia High’s Matt Fuerbringer--and the Cardinal’s volleyball future.

Fuerbringer, only a junior, left Oakland with a State championship medal.

Nieves left so impressed that, three years later, he can still rattle off Fuerbringer’s highlight reel like he just saw it on ESPN.

First minute, Fuerbringer went over two players and dunked. Went high for rebounds. Ran the floor well and showed the quick leaping ability that makes good collegiate volleyball players into great ones.

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“Matt was just an animal out there,” Nieves said. “He was dunking from the first minute of the game and was asking for the ball down the stretch. That’s what really struck me about Matt, that when it gets down to the nitty-gritty in a game, he’s at his best.”

Imagine, Nieves thought, what this 6-foot-7 kid could do for the Cardinal.

Three years later, he is finding out.

Convinced by Nieves that his athletic skills were better suited for volleyball, Fuerbringer turned down basketball scholarship offers from several small West Coast schools to become the centerpiece of Nieves’ fifth-ranked Stanford team.

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Coming off a redshirt freshman season and arthroscopic surgery on his right hitting shoulder, Fuerbringer leads the nation in kills per game (7.22). His 44 kills against USC in February is the second-best single-match performance in the nation this season behind San Diego State’s John Hyden (49 kills).

“I’m pretty surprised to be getting as many sets as I have been,” Fuerbringer said, “especially coming off last season. It wasn’t really a freshman year for me because volleyball was still such a new sport to me.

“I played since the seventh grade and in high school, but not as much as I do here. It was a learning experience.”

And a painful one.

Early in fall practice, Nieves noticed several flaws in Fuerbringer’s hitting technique. As the coaches and trainers worked with him to correct his approach and swing, they noticed swelling in his shoulder.

“It was a pre-existing condition,” Nieves said. “Matt developed it long before he got here. Our adjustment in his arm swing not only helped him be more effective as a hitter, but it has helped him stay healthy.”

Fuerbringer has his own theory.

Since Estancia’s basketball season ran late because of the playoffs every year, he only competed in about half of each volleyball season.

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As a result, he was hitting only about half as much as other high school players, and his shoulder strength wasn’t developed for the amount of hitting required in a college practice or match.

Stanford trainers told him a loose joint in his shoulder forced his muscles and tendons to swell and pinch against each other. Ice, rehabilitation and anti-inflammatory drugs helped, but it didn’t solve the problem. But the arthroscopic surgery last May did, repairing some scarred tissue.

“They cleaned it out using this new laser technique at the Stanford Hospital,” Fuerbringer said. “It worked great, but it was a long road back. The recovery time was supposed to be six to eight weeks, but it took six months. The first few weeks of practice I hit only every other day. It just wasn’t strong enough yet.”

Fuerbringer still ices the shoulder and takes anti-inflammatory drugs, but said the shoulder is nearly back to 100%.

“I’ll have to do those things all my life,” he said. “The surgery wasn’t a cure-all, but it got me to the point where I can play.”

As a result, his shoulder, and Stanford opponents, have taken a pounding this season. Besides his 49-kill match, he has matches of 40 kills against Indiana Purdue-Ft. Wayne, 39 against UC Santa Barbara, 36 against Loyola Marymount and 32 against Long Beach State.

“His shoulder has held up really well,” Nieves said. “I think his hitting load speaks for itself. There’s no way he could hit that many balls in a match with a sore shoulder.”

Fuerbringer’s play has a young Stanford team in contention for a national title. The Cardinal has started as many as two true freshmen, sophomore Mike Lambert and Fuerbringer. After a 1-3 start, they have improved to 11-7.

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“I always thought I would be playing basketball in college,” said Fuerbringer, who averaged 19 points as a senior at Estancia, leading the Eagles to a Southern Section title and a State championship in his three seasons as a varsity starter.

“But I wanted to play for a national championship team in college, and the basketball schools recruiting me, UC Santa Barbara, University of San Diego and Cal State Fullerton, weren’t going to contend for a national championship.”

Stanford’s volleyball team is a national contender almost every year, a point Nieves made clear during his recruiting visits.

“When we recruited Matt, we thought he could be a major international volleyball player,” Nieves said. “He was a major high school basketball player, but we knew he could make it to the highest levels of volleyball, whether it was the Olympics, playing professionally in Europe or with the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals on the beach.

“Would he be able to do that in basketball, play in the NBA? That’s debatable.”

It was a debate Fuerbringer wasn’t about to start. He had played for winners in basketball and in Balboa Bay Club’s successful volleyball program.

Although most of Fuerbringer’s basketball offers paid full tuition, the men’s volleyball teams, because of NCAA limitations and gender equity, could offer him little more than book money. Playing volleyball would be somewhat of a risk, but with the help of some non-athletic financial aid, Fuerbringer thought it was a chance worth taking.

“I realized when I was playing basketball at Estancia that all the individual recognition is nothing compared to winning,” he said. “And when you win, a lot of the individual recognition comes along with it.”

Such as All-American status, which might not be too much of a reach considering how well Fuerbringer is playing. But that thought is buried deep in the back of his mind, along with aspirations of playing in the Olympics.

“I like to think that’s in my future,” Fuerbringer said. “Hopefully, I’ll stay healthy and everything will fall in the right place.”

If not, there’s always basketball.

Stanford basketball Coach Mike Montgomery recently invited Fuerbringer to join the team as a walk-on. He also mentioned a full scholarship could be opening up soon.

But Fuerbringer turned the offer down. He already had a sport.

“They needed another guy for practice, but they said they had another scholarship opening up next year,” he said. “Besides, I don’t think my body could take playing two sports.

“Maybe I’ll give basketball a try someday, though. But with volleyball, at least I know I can control my destiny.”

License to Kill

Stanford volleyball player Matt Fuerbringer, a former Estancia High standout, has three of the top 10 single-match performances in the nation this season, according to statistics compiled by the American Volleyball Coaches Assn. Fuerbringer, a 6-foot-7 freshman who plays opposite the setter, also is the NCAA leader in kills per game (7.22). The top 10 single-match performances this season:

Player (Team) Kills 1. John Hyden (San Diego State) 49 2. Matt Fuerbringer (Stanford) 44 3. Darren Lance (Pacific) 41 Tarik Rodgers (NJ Tech Instit.) 41 5. Fuerbringer 40 Mike Lambert (Stanford) 40 Oliver Heitmann (Northridge) 40 8. Fuerbringer 39 9. Chris Underwood (USC) 38 10. Jason Mulholland (USC) 37 (Several others tied with 36)

Player (Team) Date and opponent 1. John Hyden (San Diego State) Feb. 11 vs. Cal State Northridge 2. Matt Fuerbringer (Stanford) Feb. 26 vs. USC 3. Darren Lance (Pacific) Feb. 27 vs. Long Beach State Tarik Rodgers (NJ Tech Instit.) March 23 vs. Queens 5. Fuerbringer March 26 vs. Ind. Purdue Ft. Wayne Mike Lambert (Stanford) Feb. 25 vs. Long Beach State Oliver Heitmann (Northridge) March 22 vs. Long Beach State 8. Fuerbringer March 6 vs. UC Santa Barbara 9. Chris Underwood (USC) Feb. 1 vs. San Diego State 10. Jason Mulholland (USC) Jan. 15 vs. Stanford (Several others tied with 36)

Source: American Volleyball Coaches Assn. statistics


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