UC San Diego senior setter Connor Walbrecht is competitive.
Really competitive. And not just in volleyball.
So competitive that when Walbrecht was a freshman, UCSD seniors challenged him to eat an entire pizza-sized cookie dessert. And he couldn’t resist the challenge, even after just downing a full all-you-can eat Italian buffet dinner.
“We travelled to BYU, and after dinner, for dessert, one of the seniors challenged him to finish an entire cookie pizza,” teammate Ryan Lew recalled. “He was going to do whatever you had to do to stand up to the seniors, so he gave it a try. He didn’t quite make it, he had one or two bites left, but it was really fun to watch.”
Accordingly, UCSD coach Kevin Ring thinks that Walbrecht’s competitive fire is big part of why the Tritons have been an early surprise in the Big West. UCSD, which failed to win a single Big West match in 2019, have run up a 12-3 overall record and are 2-0 in the Big West after twice upsetting UC Irvine.
This week, San Diego elevated to a program-high No. 6 ranking in the AVCA poll, jumping from No. 10 with the 6-foot-4 Walbrecht at the helm. The Titons play a non-conference match Friday against UC Santa Cruz and then are off until they resume Big West play next Friday with a huge match against No. 3 UC Santa Barbara.
“Connor is very competitive,” Ring said, “He’s the guy in our gym, he’s always been a talented setter, he’s a guy that will take some chances setting, and fling it around. This year, he’s a senior, he’s a captain for us, he really matured in a variety of ways.”
Walbrecht, from La Canada, California, not only leads the squad in assists (584, 10.25/set), but also in digs (131, 2.3/set), is second in aces (13) and fourth in blocks (33, four solo, .65/set).
That Walbrecht, who enjoys dabbling in golf as well as watching and analyzing movies with his father, is having success as an all-around player, which is not lost on Ring.
“Some of the things, as a blocker, as a server, he’s really improved upon, is just kind of the fundamentals, fundamentally sound volleyball,’ Ring said. “And if you keep doing that over and over and over, you’re going to get good results, so he’s become a much better blocker for us. A much better server. A much better defender. He had 20 digs in a match at Irvine.”
“Connor is a competitor and a winner,” said Lew, a senior libero who has known Walbrecht since the eighth grade, and played with him for the San Gabriel Elite club. “He gets the job done on and off the court. He’s a great friend, he’s one of the closest friends I’ve ever had.”
Walbrecht has run a balanced offense for the Tritons. Outside Kyle McCauley, an Orange County Community College transfer, leads with 223 kills (4.05/set). Returning junior outside Wyatt Harrison follows closely with 201 kills (3.53/set). Middles Shane Benet and Logan Clark chip in 114 and 64 kills, respectively, and opposite Collin Shannon has 64 kills.
“He trusts his guys,” Ring said. “We talk about keeping a balanced offense, and he does that really well, I’m not a coach that likes to over-tell the setter who to run, there might be a time where we’re trying to find a few matchups that are good for us, but other than that, I like him running the show, and he’s been doing a great job.”
Lew believes that Walbrecht’s impact is felt in a number of ways.
“Personally, I think it’s the intensity, skills, and leadership. He’s a great leader. He hypes us up. His skill on the court is great. There will be a ball off the block into the side court, and he’s able to make those touches, and as a setter you don’t think he’d be a great defender, but he has a high dig count, which is great to see, and his blocking is incredible, so it makes my job super-easy playing defense around him.”
“He has flown under the radar a little bit,” Ring said. “Coaches around the league have told me, ‘Hey, I like your setter. He’s got a live arm, he goes after it, he moves it around, he’s a good competitor.’ That’s fun to see what they think of him …
“People really need to start noticing what he’s doing. You look at our offense, and there are some nice attackers, but the guy setting every one of those balls is Connor Walbrecht.”
The conference has paid attention. This week, Walbrecht was named the Big West Defensive Player of the week for the second straight week after collecting his sixth double-double of the season with match-highs of 12 digs and 45 assists at home against UC Irvine. His team hit .357.
Walbrecht is somewhat of a late bloomer, serving primarily as a role player until his junior year at UCSD. He was recruited by several schools.
“I saw an opportunity to make this team better and hopefully get wins down the road,” he said.
This year the opportunity is even larger for Walbrecht as a senior, who takes his responsibilities as team captain seriously. He is majoring in in International Business with a focus on marketing, and looks forward to entering the job market rather than pursuing overseas volleyball opportunities.
“The mindset that I came into this year was a little different than in years past. I came in just trying to have fun, but focused on getting better and being the player that my teammates need on the court and off the court as a captain.”
Walbrecht has a significant family volleyball background. His older sister Kendall Walbrecht was a 6-3 outside/opposite for UC Davis in 2013-2016 who went on to play professionally in Germany before a knee injury cut her career short.
His second cousins are the McKibbin brothers of USC, including Jameson (current USC setter), and pro beach players Riley (a USC setter from 2008-2011) and Maddison (outside 2010-12, 2014).
His mother Janis played volleyball in high school (1978-79), while father Michael competed in the high jump.
To get to the NCAA final six, UCSD will have to come on strong and if it doesn’t win the Big West, hope for the at-large bid. The goal, he said, is to win a national title.
“The addition of a couple of new players, and the maturity that we have — we only had one senior last year and only me and Lew and one other guy were juniors — so being an older team now, I think it’s really helped us,” Walbrecht said. “And the productivity just from all aspects, from the serve-receive, to the defense, to the hitting has been amazing.
“We talked about it at the beginning of the season. We want to win a national championship. I know there’s a lot of great teams out there, Hawai’i, BYU, I’ve been watching them, they’re really good teams, butI think we actually have what it takes to get to the championship, and compete with the best of them at the NCAAs.
“We’re not shying away from any competition. We go into every game with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, but at the same time we go in determined that we are the better team, and we can show it night in and night out. I think we have what it takes to keep on going and win a national championship.”