Until the end of his career at San Clemente High, few would have contested that Cory Yoder was destined to play at USC.
And, so it is that five years later, the 6-foot-3 redshirt senior will play the biggest match of his final collegiate campaign at USC's Galen Center.
But Yoder, the son of USC volleyball legend Bob Yoder, nephew of former USC player David Yoder and older brother of Erin Yoder, who was a freshman defensive specialist for USC women's team last fall, will start at outside hitter for UC Irvine when the two teams square off Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in an Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament semifinal match between the top two teams in the national poll.
No. 1-ranked USC (22-2) is the top seed in the eight-team tournament that will provide its winner an automatic berth to the four-team NCAA Championship, May 5 and 7 at Penn State.
No. 2-ranked UCI (19-11) is the No. 4 seed aiming to not only win, but perhaps impress the NCAA selection committee that will award a single at-large berth into the Final Four to an MPSF team.
The story behind Yoder's arrival at UCI is perhaps less interesting than the journey that has led him from virtual obscurity to stardom as an Anteater.
In his first season as a full-time starter, he ranks fourth in the nation, tops among outside hitters, with a .417 hitting percentage. The first-team All-MPSF honoree has hit an eye-popping .485 the last seven matches, with just five errors and 85 kills in 165 swings. He has hit .500 or better 10 times this season and has failed to commit a hitting error in five matches. His 3.33 kills per set rank second on the team, behind two-time All-American Carson Clark, and he is also one of the team's most reliable passers.
"It has been the best year of my career and I'm really happy to be going out on a high note," Yoder said. "I've taken steps to improve my game and I feel like I've come a long way."
UCI Coach John Speraw, who said along with their work together at the Newport Beach-based Balboa Bay Volleyball Club has worked the last seven seasons with Yoder, said Yoder's ascension as an elite hitter has been nothing short of inspiring.
"I think his offensive intelligence has become really striking," Speraw said. "He just doesn't make errors anymore. He sees the block so well and makes smart shots, and he hits with more range. He has always passed the ball really well and, this year, he has become a great hitter. This has been a special year for him."
Yoder, who credits years of playing with his father, uncle and some of their peers — both on the beach and at a neighborhood grass court — with helping add to his bag of tricks, said one particular philosophy gleaned from his father has been the key to his reliability at the net.
"I am not a big guy who is going to crush the ball all the time," said Yoder, who is already undersized and additionally handicapped by what he termed a mediocre vertical leap. "That is just not my style of play. But I give my team a chance to play, because I'm not going to get an error. I might get dug more than some other players, but I want to keep a bad set in play to give us a chance to score, rather than being afraid of the block and hitting the ball out of bounds. I don't know if it's an ego thing or what, but some hitters would rather hit the ball out of bounds than get blocked by someone."
There is no small bit of irony in Yoder's emphasis on giving his team a chance to play. Because the reverse has not always been the case.
"It has been tough," Yoder said of the last three seasons, in which he started sporadically at outside hitter and even spent a brief stint this season at libero.
"I played a lot of the matches in 2008 [posting double-digit kills 16 times, hitting.303 and ranking third on the team with 3.17 kills per set].
"In 2009, I kind of had the starting role in the beginning of the year, but then I had my knee injury [tendinitis], which was really frustrating. I couldn't play for about two months.
"Last year, I was starting the second half of the year, but we had Connor Hughes [then a freshman who is redshirting this season], who has a lot of potential and coach wanted to try him, so he was getting a few of the chances. I would come in when he struggled."
Yoder played in 81 sets and his 2.49 kills per set again ranked third on the squad in 2010.
The perception that Yoder was nothing more than a role player, changed quickly when Yoder's prolific production was apparent from the opening matches this season.
"I think it was just a matter of figuring it out," said Yoder, who when asked to specify, pointed to the ability to handle different sets. "I was always comfortable passing the ball, but I was never a guy that was set that often. I don't think anyone thought of me as a big offensive threat until this season."
Few expected Yoder to have to figure out where he would play collegiately. His father played on USC's 1977 national championship team. Then, in eight seasons as head coach, Bob Yoder guided the Trojans to five Final Fours and the 1988 NCAA crown. He is one of three men, including Speraw, to have won national championships as a player and head coach.
"As a kid, with my dad being an alumnus and an ex-coach, we had really good seats for the [USC] football games," Yoder said. "And we always went to the volleyball matches growing up, so I always liked USC from a young age. I always wanted to go there. But, when I got involved in the recruiting process, I looked at different schools."
Some coaching changes at USC and UC Santa Barbara, as well as the presence of Speraw and UCI's proximity to the beach [Yoder competes on the Anteaters' surf team], helped redirect his future away from USC.
Yoder's Anteaters defeated the Trojans in the 2009 NCAA title match at BYU, and have forged a spirited rivalry with the Trojans in recent years.
The irony of Thursday's match does not escape Yoder.
"It is ironic," Yoder said. "I've always loved playing against them. It's not a hatred thing."
Should Yoder's career end on the floor of the Galen Center, he said he plans to fight on with his volleyball career.
"I'm going to train with the U.S. Pan American Games team over the summer and I would like to try to play professionally next year in Europe," said Yoder, a social studies major. "This season has definitely been a great way to go out and I feel like it has given me a lot of confidence. I never really thought about hitting a certain percentage. I just wanted to keep my starting spot and be part of a team that could make a national championship run."
Fittingly, Yoder's play has given UCI a chance at its third NCAA title in five years.