Jake Gibb figured he probably was destined to become a volleyball player. After all, his middle name is Spiker.
But while growing up in Bountiful, Utah, Gibb paid little attention to the sport.
“I thought volleyball was a girls’ sport,” he said.
That’s because in Utah, there are no boys’ high school teams. So Gibb never played. His college, Utah, also did not have a men’s volleyball team. The youngest of 11 children, Gibb, 29, learned to play in backyard pickup games, yet has made it to the upper echelon of professional players. He and partner Stein Metzger have won two of the first three events this season in the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals Nissan Series, and finished second in the other.
They are the top men’s team as the tour heads to Santa Barbara this weekend, and Gibb, 6 feet 7, leads the tour with 106 blocks and 2.47 blocks a game.
“It’s pretty rare for someone with his background to get this good,” said Metzger, a former NCAA player of the year and 2004 U.S. Olympian. “I haven’t really seen it.”
Gibb’s unorthodox journey to the AVP began on a grass court with a garden hose circled around it to mark the boundaries. The net hung between posts cemented into tires.
Gibb and his friends had to trim a nearby tree so its branches wouldn’t interfere with their pickup games and few of the players dared dive for balls.
“There were plenty of roots,” Gibb said. “We had a couple of guys who would dive and they would just get hammered every time.”
When, at 21, he returned from a two-year Mormon mission to Costa Rica, he realized he had grown four inches. That led him to the Utah Outdoor Volleyball Assn., where he quickly became that circuit’s top-ranked player.
Then, in 2002, fresh out of college, with only $750 in their bank account, Gibb and his wife, Jane, left Utah so Jake could pursue a beach volleyball career. “I just decided I wanted to try this,” Gibb said. “We only had enough for our first month’s rent so [Jane] got two jobs right after that and said, ‘Go to the beach.’ She was so rad.”
Gibb eventually met Adam Jewell and they joined forces during the 2003 season, finishing third in their first tournament together. They played eight events and finished in the top 10 four times.
Last year was an even bigger breakthrough. They won the Austin Open, finished second once and were in the top 10 at nine of 11 events. They were the No. 2 team on the AVP, Gibb was second at the “Best of the Beach” tournament and was named the AVP’s most improved player.
Metzger took note. He and partner Dax Holdren had already agreed to split after the Olympics and Metzger, a 6-3 backcourt dynamo, was seeking an intimidating net presence.
“I was like, ‘Wow! This kid just came from nowhere and, boom, he’s No. 2 in the league,’ ” Metzger said. Leaving a successful partnership wasn’t easy for Gibb. Metzger had to sell the big man on the idea. Gibb sat out the final tournament last year with an injury but was at Santa Barbara to watch it. Metzger saw him and offered him a seat.
“I had just bought these plush new beach chairs,” Metzger said. “I was like, ‘Hey, come sit in my chair.’ And I gave up my really nice, best beach chair on the beach. And I said, ‘You play with me, you get treated like this all the time.’ ”
It worked. Gibb agreed to play with Metzger and they went to work. During the off-season, they visited Dr. Marcus Elliott, a Santa Barbara performance-enhancement specialist who developed a workout routine for them. They saw John Speraw, the coach at UC Irvine, who coached serving and blocking. “Stein basically shaped me into the guy he wanted me to be,” Gibb said. “I had never been coached, so he taught me everything step by step.” Gibb’s blocking ability is among the best on the AVP, but what separates him is his improving ball control. His soft hands make better passes and sets. “Most athletes need to be told something 100 times before they start doing it consistently and make it a good habit,” Metzger said. “He has an uncanny ability to be told something once and then just start doing it all the time. Because of that, there is no telling how good he can get.”
Success wasn’t exactly immediate. Gibb and Metzger lost their second match at the season-opening Fort Lauderdale tournament but then cruised through the losers’ bracket and won the tournament by sweeping seven consecutive matches. They won the next tournament in Tempe, Ariz., and their first four matches at Austin before losing in the finals to Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, ending their winning streak at 16 matches.
It’s a streak Gibb is proud of, although still difficult for him to believe.
“Growing up, I never would have thought it,” he said.
Not even with a middle name like Spiker?
“It’s my mother’s maiden name,” he said. “That’s where it comes from. My parents don’t know a thing about volleyball.”