By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 12:52 AM
After Aaron Russell signed to play volleyball with Penn State in November, the school put out a press release touting Russell as a first-team all-Howard County and honorable mention all-state performer from Centennial High.
Left unsaid was that Russell achieved those honors as a goalie for the Eagles' soccer team. The 17-year-old had no similar volleyball accomplishments to list, because the Ellicott City school - like virtually every public school in Maryland - doesn't offer boys volleyball as a varsity sport.
And yet, without a high school team to practice with or a prep highlight reel to show off, Russell became one of the elite boys' volleyball talents in the country. After being recruited by some of the nation's best programs, he signed with the Nittany Lions, last year's NCAA runners-up. He was chosen for last spring's under-19 national team, the only East Coast representative on a 12-person team that included six Californians. And he was named the best blocker at last year's North, Central America and Caribbean youth championships in Guadalajara, Mexico, putting himself in a pipeline that could eventually lead to senior national team duty.
"If he can mature at the same rate that he's been progressing, he could be one of the top players in the country," said Gary Sato, a longtime coach with the U.S. national program who led Russell's team in Mexico. "Most all the boys have halfway decent high school teams, and good if not great club teams. It's unusual for someone to come from a part of the country that doesn't have a high school team and be able to play at this elite level."
That Russell could do so resulted from a happy combination of genetics, family background and devotion to the game. His father, Stew, played volleyball at Penn State and then transitioned into the two-man beach and grass circuit, leading to frequent family volleyball trips when Aaron and his older brother Peter were toddlers. Stew Russell's partner, Eric Lucas, had two young sons of similar ages, and so the tournament players would take turns tutoring the little boys during breaks.
And all four boys got hooked. A Russell family video shows a 3-year-old Peter getting ready to serve a balloon towards his 2-year-old brother while saying "Get weady, Aawon, get weady." The kids eventually graduated to an outdoor badminton net, and then formed an indoor group, playing against adult women's teams while they were still in grade school.
Aaron was also a high-level soccer player - his club team won a national championship, and he was the starting goalie at Centennial. But his future was in volleyball, and after briefly considering enrolling at a Catholic school that offered the sport or even relocating - Montgomery County is one of the few public school jurisdictions that offers boys' volleyball - the family decided there was a value in not going overboard.
"The way we figured it, they were getting enough exposure to the game, without having too much," Stewart Russell said. "[But] having a high school to play in would have really helped, certainly. The more you can play, the better."
The Russell and Lucas boys - who now play at George Mason - latched on with the MVP club in Rockville, where they played under Aldis Berzins, a former U.S. gold medalist. (That team will participate in this weekend's Capital Hill Volleyball Classic at the Washington Convention Center, an event featuring more than 500 boys and girls teams that is expected to draw more than 25,000 attendees.)
Aaron - who stands 6-foot-8, has a 36-inch vertical leap and can get his wrist over the 11-foot high antenna atop the net - was also recruited to occasional practices for the Centennial girls' team, which has won more state volleyball championships than any other Maryland program.
"He can sky, and his arm is just like a bullwhip," Centennial Coach Larry Schofield said. "The girls were just like 'Wow, this is what the next level looks like.' . . . He easily would have been one of the top one or two [boys'] players in the state."
Aaron will follow Peter to Penn State. (Three more brothers - ages 15, 11 and 8 - also play the game.) He's been told he still has another inch-and-a-half to grow, although coaches say his soft hands and passing abilities could allow him to move from his customary middle blocker position. And his goal is to one day play for the men's national team, even if he never managed to do the same for his high school.
"When I went to the girls' matches, I would always wish I was out there," he said. "[But] at this point, it doesn't really matter. Next year we're all going to college, and what we didn't pick up at the high school level we'll pick up there."