Brian Thornton always thought that by age 26, he'd be immersed in the real world, making a name and a career for himself that had nothing to do with squeezing off sets.
Instead, he finds himself starting for the U.S. national men's volleyball team in the World League, which comes to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. Team USA will play Puerto Rico on both nights.
Friday will, USA Coach Alan Knipe said, mark the eighth straight World League start for Thornton, who twice earned second-team All-American honors and helped lead UC Irvine to the program's first NCAA championship as a senior in 2007.
Thornton's run as a starter, created by a series of injuries at the position, has included a pair of wins over Brazil, the No. 1-ranked team in the world.
But while his proficiency on the court is no surprise to those who have followed Thornton's career, his presence in a USA jersey is a bit of a surprise, even to him.
"At the end of my senior year [after which he left as UCI's all-time assists leader with 4,.662], I was in [Anteaters Coach] John Speraw's office and he told me I had been invited to try out for the World University Games," Thornton said. "I remember thinking that it was probably the highest [level at which] I'll probably ever be able to play, so I'm going to go for that. That was going to be it for me. But, somehow, it just kept on going.
"It wasn't that I put limitations on myself [something others have always done due to his less-than-chiseled 6-foot-3 frame]," he said. "But I was at the point where I had played [college] volleyball for four years and I was going to move on and do something else. And then, it just didn't really go that way. I stepped away from volleyball for about a year and I realized I wasn't nearly as happy as I had been when I was playing. All my friends were overseas playing and I realized 'I've got to do it. There was no way I could not play. I'm only young once and there's a ton of time to do other things. Let's give this a shot.'"
Thornton, who helped the U.S win bronze at the 2007 World University Games, began his professional career in Spain in 2009-10. It was an inauspicious start.
"It was probably the most difficult time in my life, being over there," Thornton said of his first professional stop. "It was a tough situation with the work environment on the team. But I stuck it out and came home and played with the national A-2 team in the Pan American Cup that summer. I had a pretty good tournament [Team USA won gold] and I got an opportunity to play in France."
Things improved significantly in his second pro season, after which he got a call from national team coach Alan Knipe, who coached that Pan American Cup team and had coached against Thornton while guiding Mountain Pacific Sports Federation rival Long Beach State.
"That year in France was just what I needed to actually stick around and stay interested in playing," Thornton said.
"[Knipe] called and wanted to know if I had plans for this summer. He told me he wanted to put me on the World League roster."
That roster had been pared at the setter position by injuries to Donald Suxio and Tyler Hildebrand. In addition, veteran Kevin Hansen, a Corona del Mar High product who was part of the gold-medal triumph at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, was temporarily sidelined by an appendectomy, as well as the birth of his first child.
Soon, Thornton ascended the depth chart.
"I went into the first match in Poland and I was so incredibly nervous," Thornton said. "It was about as nervous as I've ever been before a match in my life. I set some terrible balls in the beginning. But after the first five minutes, when I stopped thinking about playing in a World League match, I calmed down. And it has been like that ever since."
Knipe said Thornton's success has helped solidify a team that has undergone constant personnel changes.
"Brian has done a lot of things in his career to deserve this opportunity," Knipe said. "He has been the benefactor of some injuries, but I'm not going to say he wouldn't have warranted this chance regardless of who was in the gym. He has handled it really well and done a good job. He has consistently gotten better every weekend he has been out there."
Knipe said he has long admired Thornton's subtly intelligent leadership and his ability to trigger an offense.
"He has a track record of being successful and he is a really good competitor," Knipe said. "He's smart, a high volleyball IQ guy. It's really easy to talk about setters Brian's size and list all the things he can't do [he is neither an intimidating blocker, nor a fierce server]. But ultimately, the No. 1 thing a setter has to do is be able to run an offense, consistently locate the hitters, and follow a game plan. He does all those things extremely well. And these are things he has done his whole career."
It is a career that suddenly may include a future on the national team, though Thornton is quick to downplay the long-term ramifications of his sudden rise in the international game.
"Who knows where it is going to go," Thornton said. "All the setters in the program are really, really great setters. It's one of those things where I'm just enjoying it one game at a time and one point at a time."