By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hawai'i's Cayley Thurlby and Penn State's Sam Tortorello have survived a tenuous start and a gap of almost 5,000 miles to forge a friendship that is nearly a decade old.
It began near Chicago in seventh grade, with the shared letter of their last names. Lining up alphabetically among hundreds of volleyball players is rarely the foundation for a long alliance. But Thurlby and Tortorello worked through that and a five-year skirmish for one position.
They remain close despite the huge distance that now separates them, and prevents them from enjoying Lou Malnati's authentic Chicago-style deep dish pizza, with "the cheese in the middle and the sauce on top."
Last December, they were on the phone consoling each other an hour after their teams lost in the NCAA Regionals. In the next couple years, both will graduate with degrees in communications/business, because "we're both very social and don't mind talking in front of people," Tortorello explains.
Last week in Omaha, Neb., and this week at the Hawaiian Airlines Volleyball Classic, the two Chicago-area setters are hoping to be integral parts of two of the five top-ranked volleyball teams in the country. PSU and UH open the Classic against seventh-ranked USC and will face each other, for the second time in a week, tomorrow at Stan Sheriff Center.
The Nittany Lions swept the Rainbow Wahine on Saturday at the AVCA/NACWAA Volleyball Showcase. Asked what she would say to Thurlby later, Tortorello didn't hesitate. "I'm glad it's not me (that lost)," the two-time All-American said.
Then she grinned. "Hawai'i is a great team and I'm sure they'll have a great season," Tortorello added, "because they always do."
Both these teams always do, which is why the two top setters for Chicago's massive Sports Performance volleyball club navigated to diverse coasts three years ago.
Thurlby and Tortorello grew up 20 minutes apart, in Naperville and Shorewood, Ill. They became close through constant hours of sweat and strain with Sports Performance, and a shared self-image of "the troublemakers who talked back." They drove to practice and tournaments together and irritated coaches by remaining close despite competing for the same coveted position.
Tortorello matriculated to Happy Valley because of the program's tradition, and to follow in a line of Sports Performance setters that will continue; PSU just recruited a setter from Thurlby's high school.
Tortorello thrives on playing in the vaunted Big Ten, where she sees club teammates nearly every match.
But she envies Thurlby's proximity to the beach. "I love the weather here. I love laying out. I love the sun," Tortorello gushes. "I'm addicted to the sun. ... Back at school, it's raining right now. It rains every day."
Thurlby came here for the tradition and because a trip to China as a high school junior opened her eyes to a new world she recognized immediately in Hawai'i.
"I was like, 'This is the same kind of place,' " Thurlby recalls. "Who eats saimin in the bleachers? I like the fact that I'm learning more outside of school than in school."
Not that she wouldn't have seriously considered an offer from Penn State coach Russ Rose. That offer, however, had already been made to Tortorello, who appreciates Rose's bluntness because she grew up with it at Sports Performance.
"Russ is just a fireball," Thurlby says. "He's going to tell you straight up how it is, get in your face, drop some f-bombs. ... He's a really fun guy and passionate about what he's doing. He's the volleyball version of Hardball."
And, while Tortorello is Penn State's version of the pure setter, Thurlby has evolved into a player whose most vital contribution is her versatility. She is officially the backup to Kanoe Kamana'o, another two-time All-American. But Thurlby is also extremely adept at mimicking opposing setters in practice and could play a crucial role as a passer and/or right-side hitter.
The diversity is a rarity for a setter. Tortorello says the ability has been there from the start.
"Cayley was always good at everything," Tortorello remembers. "She was in the passing rotation last week and she was so confident. I was like, 'Cayley, if that was me I would have been shaking.' She can hit, she can block, she's a great setter. I think that's awesome."
Thurlby is in awe of how far Tortorello has come: "I remember when I was a senior thinking I know Sam is going to get better, but I don't know how she could get much better."
Reach Ann Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.