East meets west: volleyball welcoming to California kids

by Mike Lucas / Beacon Staff • February 20, 2014

Jackson Wiley (right) goes up for a block in a game against Emmanuel.
Andrew Harwood / Beacon Archives
Jackson Wiley (right) goes up for a block in a game against Emmanuel.
Andrew Harwood / Beacon Archives

If the state of Texas is known as the mecca of high school football, then the same can be said about California and its intensive volleyball scene. No state produces more players than the Golden State.

Just by looking at the Emerson men’s and women’s volleyball rosters, somebody might think the team was based at Emerson’s Los Angeles campus. That’s because volleyball boss Ben Read, who coaches both teams, has nine Californians out of the 30 total on his two rosters.

The rules of volleyball are the same on both the East and the West coasts, but that’s about the only similarity between the two, according to freshman Jess Hamilton.

“The dynamics are different,” said Hamilton, an outside hitter from Altadena, Calif. “On the East Coast, volleyball is a sport. On the West Coast, volleyball is a way of life.”

In California, volleyball is a year-round sport. On the East Coast, its just seasonal, according to sophomore outside hitter Jackson Wiley, a Los Angeles native. 

“Talking to [sophomore libero] Jared Gross, I found out that his club team only went to several tournaments before Junior Nationals,” Wiley said. Gross went to high school in Pittsburgh, Pa. “In LA, there was a club tournament every weekend, for about 10 weeks, maybe more. There were hundreds of teams there every time.”

Read doesn’t have any real ties to the West Coast. He played Division 1 volleyball at the University of New Hampshire, and previously coached at the University of Connecticut and Wheaton College before coming to Emerson. His East Coast background hasn’t stopped him from searching all over the country for the best possible recruits, though.

“We’ve had some good luck with a couple of guys out there,” said Read, who wouldn’t give away his full sales pitch. “Some of it is the interest [in Emerson], a lot of local Los Angeles players that are interested in our film-related type majors. It was luck at first, but we’ve had good success in years before, so why not stick with it?”

For some volleyball players like Wiley, the choice to leave the comfort of the West Coast and come to Emerson was an easy one.

“My choice to come to Emerson was more film-related than volleyball-related,” Wiley said. “I spent my whole life in LA, and my career after college is going to take me back there. I wanted to experience a different place, like Boston, at least for a little while.”

Despite traveling 3,000 miles across country to Emerson, the athletes haven’t had to make too many adjustments to feel comfortable both on the court and off.

“The Emerson athletics community made me feel welcomed right away,” Hamilton said.

Except for the volleyball program, Emerson isn’t known for recruiting athletes from the West Coast. The 12 other varsity sports teams at Emerson have a combined 19 players who come from states bordering the Pacific Ocean — although, notably, that list includes junior men’s basketball captain Eli Kell-Abrams and senior softball captain Bianca Buono.

“A lot of us wouldn’t survive in Division 1 volleyball,” Wiley said. “So Emerson gave us an avenue to play at our level.”

Even though the West is where many of the top Division 1 volleyball programs in the country are located, the majority of Division 3 programs are on the eastern seaboard.

“The West Coast has by far the most competitive volleyball, at least in Division 1,” Wiley said. “In Division 3, however, the East Coast takes the cake.”

The mix of players from different regions is what makes Division 3 volleyball so interesting, at least according to Read.

“All areas of the country have a little different style,” Read said. “You’re getting a mix or hybrid of a lot of different styles because you’re getting West Coast kids coming here and East Coast kids going there. It works out pretty well.”

Five sophomores and juniors on the men’s team hail from California — a group that includes sophomores Wiley, setter Brendan McGonigle (Los Angeles), 6-foot-6 Dmitri Gorenc (Thousand Oaks), and Ben Hillman (South Pasadena), all sophomores, and junior captain Connor Burton (Valencia), who is an assistant sports editor at the Beacon.

Wiley is the team’s top hitter at 3.61 kills per set and its best server (17 aces), while McGonigle sits at 299 assists through 10 matches. Burton (46 kills, 25 digs, 7 blocks), Gorenc (50 kills), and Hillman (35 kills 23 digs) have all been regular contributors as well, meaning the biggest change most of these athletes have dealt with is the Boston winter.

“The only major adjustment I made was to the weather,” Hamilton said. “There isn’t anything in California that can prepare for Boston snow.”

 

Assistant sports editor Connor Burton did not edit this story because he is a member of the men’s volleyball team.