LONDON – U.S. men's volleyball player Matt Anderson knows what it takes to overcome adversity.
During his first serve in an important Pool B match against Brazil last week, Anderson accidentally smashed the ball way past the opponent and it almost landed in the stands. The Brazilian fans started to whistle as the ball sailed at least 30 yards past the end line.
“It's just one of those things,” Anderson said after the U.S. upset top-ranked Brazil 23-25, 27-25, 25-19, 25-17 to improve to 3-0 at the 2012 Olympic Games.
“It really comes down to maintaining your composure and I had to do that a few times tonight. After that horrible serve, [team captain] Clay [Stanley] came over to me and told me just to 'hit my serve.' Sometimes, you have to work through things and those guys are always there to remind me of that.”
Anderson eventually found his groove and finished with 11 kills on 26 attacks, two aces and a block. He is the U.S. team's leader in scoring and ranks among the tournament's Top 10 overall.
Not bad for the squad's youngest player, who at 25 years old, has carried the nickname “Pup” ever since he started with the program in 2009.
Aside from typical new-guy teasing three years ago, Anderson had to endure other challenges.
“Matt has a wonderful story because it hasn't been easy for him,” U.S. men's volleyball coach Alan Knipe said. “He's made a enormous upward climb so far in his short career and he's just now starting to get into what Matt Anderson can be as an international volleyball player.”
He may be young, but when Anderson started with the U.S. national men's volleyball team, he had an immediate impact.
The kid from upstate New York started five of his first six matches with the team and then came down with pneumonia, which sidelined Anderson for weeks.
“It was really rough because I came on strong in 2009 but then I couldn't finish that summer with the guys,” said Anderson, a 6-foot-10 wing hitter. “In 2010, it still took time for me to find my role. 2011 was by far my best year with the national team and it's just been building ever since.”
Aside from his emergence on the national team, Anderson also credited his professional play for the steady improvement. He played his first two years in South Korea and quickly moved on to bigger things.
“Playing overseas really helped,” he said. “Now, I'm in Italy and it's arguably the best league in the world.”
Even before he picked up a volleyball and was compared with the best in the world, Anderson got started in sports with soccer and baseball.
As a young pitcher, he started to overuse that powerful right arm. It was in the days before little league coaches started to count pitches and it could have resulted in surgery so Anderson started to focus on soccer.
In his teen years, a then 5-foot-10 Anderson entered high school and quickly realized his love for volleyball.
“There was just something about it – I started to love volleyball from the first time I played it,” Anderson said. “Then I started to do a travel league in the summer and the rest was history. That's when I knew I wanted to pursue it.”
The varsity basketball coach at his West Seneca, N.Y. high school could not ignore the freshman's height and recruited him for the other hardwood sport. He made the team his freshman year but “I rode the pine that first year, so it was all volleyball after that.”
After leading his high school volleyball team to an undefeated record and division championship title his senior year, he graduated at 6-foot-7 and grew three more inches during an All-American career at Penn State. Anderson also led the Nittany Lions to an NCAA national title in 2008, which put him on U.S. national team radar.
“Matt has worked extremely hard to get more physical and is one of the easiest guys I've ever worked with in the weight room,” Knipe said.
He is also one of the few U.S. national team players not from California, but now lives there when he's back in the States after professional stints abroad.
Six of the 20 players on the U.S. national team roster were born in California and two more, who were not born out west, ended up playing college there. Knipe's entire coaching staff and two team scouts are also from California.
“Well, that's where volleyball is the biggest right now,” Anderson said. “The sport is growing in upstate New York and hopefully with the exposure we are getting right now, I can bring it back there and help volleyball thrive even more.”
But before any triumphant volleyball homecoming, Anderson and Team USA are on a mission to repeat as Olympic gold medalists. Along the way, he continues to draw attention from fans around the globe.
“Is he one of the best players in the world? Today, I would certainly think so,” Knipe said. “I'm not sure where he rates on that list but if you polled a lot of the coaches at the Olympics, I'm sure they would have his name up there.”