COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Oct. 15, 2015) – Aaron Russell has been mistaken for another player on the U.S. Men’s National Team more than once.
“A woman asked me for my autograph, but before I gave it to her we asked her if she knew who I was,” Russell said. “She thought I was Matt.”
Matt would be Matt Anderson, the U.S. Men’s opposite and outside hitter who has been the team’s top scorer for the last three straight seasons. The woman’s confusion might be forgiven considering both players are a little over 6-foot-9 inches tall and have dark hair.
Even arena announcers have gotten the two confused as both can fly out of the back row to pound the ball at the opposition.
“But I don’t have tattoos,” Russell pointed out with a laugh.
Tattoos aside, Russell (Ellicott City, Md.), who like Anderson played at Penn State, may have even more in common with the veteran player in 2016, if he makes the U.S. team for the Olympic Games. At 25, Anderson was the youngest player on the 2012 U.S. Men’s Olympic Volleyball Team. Russell, who will turn 23 in June, could also be one of the youngest on the squad in Rio de Janeiro. (Thomas Jaeschke, another Olympic hopeful, is three months younger than Russell)
Anderson led the U.S. Men in their recent victory at the FIVB World Cup and was named the tournament MVP. But Russell was right on his heels in several categories.
Russell was second on the team behind Anderson in scoring with 130 points on 110 kills, six blocks and 14 aces. The 110 kills on 213 attempts gave him a success percentage of 51.64, good for second on the team (behind Anderson). The 14 aces (.38 per set) tied him with Taylor Sander for second on the team (behind Anderson).
Moreover, Russell led the U.S. Men in scoring in their final three World Cup matches against powerhouses Poland, Russia and Argentina.
“I just think that a lot of the guys who played major roles early on in the tournament, who carried us there, were tired,” Russell said. “Micah (Christenson, setter) was looking for other options.
“Luckily I’m young, so I had a little left in the tank and that paid off for us.”
Russell is so young, in fact, that in May he was playing for Penn State at the NCAA Men's National Championship. The Nittany Lions lost in the semifinals and a few days later, Russell was at the American Sports Center in Anaheim training with the U.S. Men.
U.S. Head Coach John Speraw praised the young players on his squad following the team’s final victory over Argentina that secured the World Cup victory.
“This is a team that has tremendous promise,” Speraw said following the World Cup win. “For us to achieve this with Micah Christenson and Aaron Russell, who haven’t played a point of professional volleyball… I think it’s really incredible.
“It’s a testament to their work ethic and talents.”
Russell started playing balloon volleyball in his kitchen at age 2 with older brother Peter. By the time he reached high school in Maryland, Russell was a top high school soccer goalie. But Maryland doesn’t have high school boys’ volleyball, so Russell played on a club team and also helped his high school’s girls’ team train.
He credits his Maryland club coaches, including Olympic gold medalist Aldis Berzins and Ric Lucas, along with his father Stew with helping him get to the National Team and helping him make the switch from middle blocker, which he played at Penn State, to outside hitter.
“Aldis was a great passer,” Russell said. “Even though I was playing middle blocker, I think I was able to pick up some passing techniques and they have stuck with me. That helped me make the switch.”
Next up for Russell is his first professional season in Italy on Sir Safety Conad Perugia. Joining him in the Italian league will be U.S. outside hitter Taylor Sander, who plays in Verona, and Christenson, who will play in Civitanova Marche.
“My first match will be against Taylor’s team,” Russell said. “The three of us talked about going to Rome if we get some time off.”
After his time in Italy, Russell will return to the U.S. gym and try to make the squad for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where he hopes to make a name for himself alongside Anderson.