Renaissance for U.S. Volleyball?

Tom Hoff discovered volleyball before Illinois high schools did.

It was 1989, three years before the first state tournament. Hoff was a Maine South sophomore who suddenly fell for the sport to which his older brother had introduced him.

It wasn't easy for him to develop a relationship. There were few serious games and fewer role models.

Hoff found himself chasing his new love all over the Chicago area. There were coed tournaments at the Armory, beach games at North Avenue, more tournaments at the New City YMCA.

Nearly 20 years later, Hoff still is chasing games, but his itinerary is global.

He has played 10 years on professional teams in Japan, Greece and Russia; played for the United States in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 2004 Athens Games; was captain of the U.S. team at the 2006 world championships in Japan. And he celebrated his 34th birthday Saturday in Lyon, France, where the U.S. team regained the top spot in its group in the International Volleyball Federation's World League.

Hoff's journey brings him back near his Park Ridge roots this weekend for World League matches against Italy at 7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Saturday at Chicago State University's Convocation Center. All because he was 6 feet 8 inches, could jump and was California dreamin'.

The pro-volleyball dream

After two years at Ohio State, which recruited him based on size and potential, Hoff's dream came true. He transferred to Long Beach State, made first-team All-America as a junior and senior and earned a mechanical engineering degree. Of more significance, he got the job he wanted: pro volleyball player.

"I loved the life I saw players like Scott Fortune and Eric Sato having in California, and I wanted to get into it," Hoff said. "After more than a dozen years, I love it just as much."

And why not? Hoff said top volleyball players make six-figure salaries--some nearly $1 million--for six-month seasons in the overseas leagues where he played. So he has earned a slice of the California good life, with a wife, three young daughters and a home in the upscale Orange County community of Laguna Niguel.

If there is a down side to this story, it is that he found volleyball nirvana in the Golden State just as Team USA's golden age was ending.

From 1984 through 1988, the U.S. men ruled the world, winning two Olympic gold medals, the world championship and the World Cup. A bronze medal in the 1994 worlds was their last in any of those events.

Now, Hoff said, the United States is not a lock to qualify for the 12-team field at the 2008 Olympics, even if it is the top-ranked team in this region.

The qualifying process begins in September.

"We don't get a free pass," Hoff said.

The U.S. has finished 9th, 9th and 10th in the last three world championships. It failed to win a match in the 2000 Olympics.

Four years later, a stunning comeback over Greece in the quarterfinals of the 2004 Olympics gave the U.S. a shot at a medal. It lost the bronze-medal game to Russia.

The victory over Greece is the highlight of Hoff's national team career.

"We were down two sets to one and 20-12 in the fourth set," Hoff recalled. "Our Olympics were about to be over, but we came together and said, 'If we are going to do something, this is the time.' It gave me the greatest feeling of accomplishment because we persevered."

The ups and downs

Bob Ctvrtlik, the U.S. Olympic Committee vice president who played on the 1988 and 1992 Olympic medalists as well as the 9th-place finishers at the 1996 Games, cited several reasons for the rise and fall of the men's team.

One is simply talent.

"We had a very unusual group--extremely talented, mainly from California, guys who played indoors from 8 to 12 in the morning and went out to play on the beach for the rest of the day," Ctvrtlik said. "That changed when USA Volleyball moved the training center from California to Colorado Springs for financial reasons."

During the nine-year exile (1997 through 2006) in the mountains, sponsorship losses exacerbated the financial problems. USA Volleyball lacked funding for the national team to gain competitive experience in the World League from 2002 through 2005.

The national team began to regain its footing with a move of its training center back to California in April 2006.

"We have high expectations for them," Ctvrtlik said.

But reviving past glory is a tall order, even for a team whose shortest player is 6-3.
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Catch an interview with Hugh McCutcheon, head coach of the USA men's volleyball team here.

Philip Hersh

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