Men in middle have tall order
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Stephen Tsai
In the increasingly specialized world of college volleyball, the middle man is The Man.
That is apparent for tomorrow's opponents, host Hawai'i and UC Irvine. Each team has three middle blockers on its 13-player active roster.
"I wish we had more, but there aren't a lot out there," Irvine coach John Speraw said. "Quality middles are far and few."
In the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, volleyball's best conference, the shortage of effective middle blockers is noticeable. When Jamie Diefenbach suffered a knee injury last week, UCLA scrambled for a replacement, eventually moving opposite hitter David Russell. Of Pepperdine's five middles, two have previous NCAA experience. Brigham Young has had to alternate 26-year-old Victor Batista at middle and outside hitter. For the first two days of the Warriors' training camp, newly hired assistant coach Jason Salmeri had to practice as a middle.
Still, Speraw said: "Hawai'i is very fortunate. Hawai'i has three good middles."
But Kyle Klinger contacted the UH coaches after completing his stint in the Air Force, and backup Mauli'a LaBarre was lightly recruited.
"It's always been hard to find middles, especially in Hawai'i," said associate coach Tino Reyes, UH's point man in recruiting. "You don't want someone who's just big. You want someone who is athletic, too. You're not going to take a stiff, at least a functional stiff, anyway, and put him in the middle."
With teams running quicker offenses, there is a demand for middles who can jump high, move laterally and speed-read the movements of the setter and attacker.
"Before, if you were a big guy, you were going in the middle," Klinger said. "But now you have to be big and athletic because the middles are facing bigger outsider hitters and setters."
The thing is, the combination of height and agility is ideal for a basketball center.
In the youth divisions, Reyes said, "We're losing a lot of volleyball players to basketball."
Reyes said UH basketball guard Bobby Nash and UH football player Ikaika Alama-Francis "would have been good ones in volleyball. A lot of it is economics."
Reyes noted that basketball players receive full scholarships. In men's volleyball, the NCAA limits each team to the financial equivalent of 4.5 scholarships. In the system, a third-string basketball player can receive more financial aid than a volleyball All-American.
It is why it made financial sense for Scott Kato, a two-sport athlete at Kalaheo High, to play basketball at Division II Hawai'i Pacific University.
"We thought he could have been a pretty good Division I volleyball player," Reyes said. "He could have been an All-American. But he decided to go to HPU and play basketball, and he was a good basketball player. It was economics. You can get a full ride at HPU and Hilo, but only a partial scholarship here."
Speraw also theorized that the introduction of the libero ó the defensive specialist ó has depleted the pool of middle blockers. Because the libero usually substitutes for the middle, Speraw said, in youth and high school leagues "few want to play middle. They want to play all around. A lot of middles are moving to outside hitter."
For the offensive-minded, the middle offers limited opportunities. Middles are the equivalent of football fullbacks, serving as decoys 75 percent of the time, while the set goes to the perimeter attackers.
UH coach Mike Wilton acknowledges the premium placed on trained middles. "It is what it is," he said.
But he said: "Sometimes you have to get guys with the right kind of tools and work with them."
In 2002, Wilton coaxed 6-foot-11 basketball player Josh Stanhiser to try out for volleyball. Stanhiser developed into a starting middle.
The UH staff also helped Klinger, LaBarre and Dio Dante develop into active blockers.
"It's a hard position, but no position is easy," LaBarre said. "You just have to work at trying to get better."
Klinger said: "It's worked out really well for us. We're all three different guys. We push each other really hard in practice. I know all three of us have improved since last year. Hopefully, we can keep contributing to the team."
In related news, the Warriors remained seventh in this week's CSTV/AVCA top-15 poll. UH (3-2) won last week's Outrigger Invitational.
Long Beach State remained No. 1.
Reach Stephen Tsai at email@example.com.