For Penn State outside hitter Aaron Russell, it all started in the kitchen.
That’s where the First Team All-American and Olympic hopeful got his first taste of volleyball.
Balloon volleyball, that is, played with his brother.
I was just learning how to walk, maybe a little over one [year old], but it was obvious that my older brother was dominating me, Russell said. I didnt really know what was going on and he was going up and blocking me. It was a bit of an unfair fight I think. If we played now it would be a little bit different.
The 6-foot-9 Russell experienced a slightly higher level of competition when he played for the U.S. National Team twice last year.
The two-time defending EIVA Player of the Year was the youngest player on the U.S. team in the World Championship qualifier last May, turning 21 shortly after the tournament wrapped up.
A bit nervous at first, the native of Ellicott City, Maryland, was named Best Spiker of the qualifier, which the U.S. won, putting away 28 kills on 38 swings with only two hitting errors for a percentage of .684.
Russell also served up four aces.
I settled in pretty quickly, said Russell. I remember making a few pretty good plays. After that I just felt comfortable. I felt like I was in a gym that I was used to with a team that I was used to. I was thinking about it after the first match and I thought I could play with these guys, and I could potentially see myself going pretty far with them, too.
Years after Russell had traded in balloon volleyballs for the leather and synthetic variety, he played club ball where he was coached by Aldis Berzins, an outside hitter on the U.S. team that won gold in the 1984 Olympics.
Older brother Peter also played for the same club. Their dad Stewart, an All-American volleyball player at Penn State, helped out occasionally at practice.
There would be practices where my older brother and a few other people on the team and I would all just go practice with my dad, and we would just kind of hammer out some basic skills, some fundamentals, said Russell. I think that was pretty helpful, just being able to work on fundamentals and do that sort of thing, instead of even playing in matches for high school.
Russell wasnt able to play high school volleyball. That’s because his high school didnt have a boys volleyball teamthough he did help out with the girls team.
He’s probably played and been around the game longer than most kids who played in high school, Penn State head coach Mark Pavlik said.
All the hours of work Russell has put in paid off. The Penn State senior is already being pegged as a candidate for the 2015 National Player of the Year award. I think he’s on the short list, Pavlik said.
If he were to win that award, Russell would have something in common with former Nittany Lion Matt Anderson.
A star for the U.S. men and Russian Super League team Zenit Kazan, Anderson was named co-Player of the Year in 2008 when he led the Nittany Lions to the NCAA title.
Pavlik sees similarities between Russell and the 6-foot-10 Anderson, who just might be the best men’s volleyball player to come through State College.
Both played middle blocker before being moved to a new position in collegeAnderson to opposite, Russell to outside hitter. If we can get Aaron making first and third contacts, I like our chances of winning that rally, and Matty was the same way, said Penn State’s head coach.
Anderson left Happy Valley after his junior season to turn pro.
Russell also had a chance to become a professional before his senior year, but chose one more season at Penn State over a contract to play overseas.
I did get a few offers over the summer and I realized that could be a possibility, but to be honest, I just wanted to come back and finish my last season with the guys, Russell said. Ive had a great time here and theyve given so much to me and I want to be able to get a national championship before I leave. I didnt even want to hear the offers that I received. I just didnt want to be tempted at all.
With the U.S. trailing 22-19 in the second set of an exhibition match versus Iran in August, Russell went back to the service line. The national team rookie went on a 5-0 serving run that brought Team USA to match point.
Russell’s first couple of serves gave Iran’s passers problems. Then an ace tied the set at 22. That was exciting for me, just being able to be on that stage and being able to perform and help my team out to win that set, and ultimately the match.
Serving is something Russell does very welllast season, he led the NCAA men’s top division with 0.65 aces per set.
Paul Sunderland, a teammate of Russell’s club coach Berzins on that gold-medal winning 1984 team, is now a TV announcer and he did the play-by-play in that match between the U.S. men and Iran.
Sunderland believes the Nittany Lion star has what it takes.
Good technically handling the ball, because he’s going to be an outside, athletically fits the mold, size-wisewhat is he 6’8″, 6’9″?fits the mold, said Sunderland. He’s a player that’s been identified by [U.S. head coach] John [Speraw] and his assistant coaches as someone who’s got a lot of potential.
It seems likely that Russell will play for Team USA again and is aiming for a spot on the Olympic team.
Russell’s chances of landing a spot on the squad that goes to Rio could improve, depending on the status of three-time Olympian Reid Priddy, who injured his ACL last May.
But before he wears the USA jersey again, Russell and his Penn State teammates are aiming for the third NCAA title in school history.
The Nittany Lions return every starter from a year ago except for Aaron’s older brother Peter, a 6-foot-5 outside hitter.
Should they win it all, there will likely be a party to celebrate. Music, good food. Congratulations all around.
And maybe some balloons as well.