Dreams sometimes die hard in Southern California. Take the case of Bryan Ivie. No matter how much he grew—and, boy, did he grow—he kept hauling his board the nine blocks from his Manhattan Beach home to the ocean. He was, by all accounts, a terrific surfer. But when he reached 6'7", there was, sadly, a ridiculous aspect to his maneuvers; it was like watching a high-masted ship skittering through a slalom course. "He looked pretty geeky," says his brother Pat.
When you consider his sporting career, it is as if Bryan decided to inch his way inland from the surf until he could find some athletic dignity. In Southern California he didn't have to inch far up the sand, only to the nets on the beach at Marine Avenue, one of the world's principal spawning grounds for volleyball players. In volleyball, being tall and strong causes more slobbering than snickering. Ivie could block, of course. He was the Mark Eaton of Manhattan Beach. But, more like Michael Jordan than Eaton, he also had the kind of hang time that allowed him to take a set and—hanging, hanging—suddenly strike down on the ball and splay the fingers of the cowering players opposite him. Ivie was a natural.
And now, a little further inland at USC, he is, without argument, the best volleyball player in college. He was national Player of the Year as a junior last season, when he led USC over Long Beach State at the NCAA finals in Fairfax, Va. This year, with the benefit of some off-season international experience, he clearly has improved his game. Last Friday night, in a rematch against No. 2-ranked Long Beach State, he had 36 kills in top-ranked USC's four-game win over its increasingly bitter rival. Did he look geeky? "He looked awesome," said USC's second-year coach, Jim McLaughlin. "But he always does."
So he's the best college player?
"At least," says UCLA coach Al Scates. "Actually, I would go further than that. I would say, right now, he's the best in the country." Scates pauses. "Keep in mind that Karch Kiraly is in Italy at the moment, making $500,000."
So he's not yet better than Kiraly, who played on the U.S. teams that won gold medals at the 1984 and '88 Olympics and was the MVP in Seoul. But Ivie came to the game late. He didn't join a team until his junior year at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach, and he is still improving. He's definitely in Kiraly's league, if not his income bracket. "Karch is the only guy I can compare Bryan to," says McLaughlin. "Bryan does everything well. Like a Magic Johnson. There are only a few guys around like that, great at everything—Karch and now Bryan."
Until Ivie can join Kiraly in Europe or on the increasingly lucrative Stateside pro beach volleyball tour, the benefits of Ivie's talents will accrue entirely to USC, the nation's dominant college team. The Trojans have now won 20 matches in a row dating back to last year, and are 11-0 in NCAA best-of-five matches this season. In nine of those 11 matches they swept their opponents in three games.
The greatest obstacle to another Trojan title is, once again, Long Beach State. The 49ers (14-2) not only nicked the Trojans for a game on USC's own court last Friday, they might have won the match except for a controversial call in the second game. After dropping the first game 16-14, the 49ers were about to even things up in the second. They were leading 15-14, USC serving, and apparently got a sideout and the serve. But Ivie had noticed that Long Beach's Brett Schroeder was out of position—"overlapped," as they say—and alerted McLaughlin. After the play McLaughlin complained to the official, and the sideout was lost. So instead of Long Beach serving for the game, USC got the point, the serve and, soon enough, the game, 17-15.
The infraction is a rare one, happening perhaps once a match and almost always corrected without penalty by the official before the play. It is almost never called after the play. "I've asked for it," says Long Beach coach Ray Ratelle, "but never gotten it."
With the help of 6'5" sophomore Brent Hilliard, who had a match-high 41 kills, Long Beach won the third game 15-11 but got whacked 15-8 in the final. That last victory was inspired by USC's Jen-Kai Liu, a senior who had missed nearly all of the past two seasons because of an injury to his right knee. On Friday, Jen-Kai, the MVP of the 1988 Final Four, entered a game on USC's court for the first time in two years and became more than just a sentimental crowd favorite. Nicknamed the Hammer (all the Trojans have nicknames, it seems), he came in during the third game, even with his right knee in a heavy brace and his good knee bleeding, and helped ice the match with his passing and seven kills.
Although it was another big win for USC, the 49ers' performance was good enough to give them hope for the rematch at Long Beach on April 17 and perhaps for as many as two more meetings with the Trojans in postseason play. By then, Ivie's brother Pat, a powerful 6'5" USC freshman who is said to be an advanced (if smaller) version of Bryan, will have recovered from an ankle injury.
In the past, Long Beach's best hope was to meet USC without Bryan Ivie. It worked last year when Ivie sprained his ankle in their late-season game, which Long Beach won, and still was unable to play when the two teams met in the Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Association conference championships, which Long Beach also won. But with Ivie in the lineup, whether at middle blocker or at opposite hitter (the equivalent of baseball's cleanup spot), nobody seems to have a chance against the Trojans. You could ask the Soviets, if you don't believe the NCAA coaches.
Last summer, playing for the U.S. team at the Goodwill Games in Seattle, Ivie made quite an impression on the Soviet team. After the U.S. dropped its first game to the U.S.S.R. 8-15, Ivie was sent in with the U.S. trailing 4-13 in the second game. The Americans came back to win 15-13 and went on to beat one of the world's best teams in five games. "I saw that on TV," says the new U.S. team coach, Fred Sturm. "Very impressed, is all I can say." Sturm already has circled the date on his calendar when Ivie can join the national team in San Diego—"for the World League [games] in May, I hope," Sturm says.
Sturm will be happy to hear that Ivie continues to improve. After he won the Player of the Year award last season, McLaughlin congratulated him but told him he had better work on his blocking. "He couldn't get enough reps [in practice]," says McLaughlin. Now Ivie is in the top five in the nation in blocking. Still, Ivie is not perfect. "He doesn't dig exceptionally well, doesn't pass," says Scates. Then he laughs, as if he had just told you that Michelle Pfeiffer can't cook. "All he does is hit and block, control the net. Which is what wins games."
Ivie, who isn't that comfortable with the inevitable nickname of Poison (he is exceedingly quiet and mild-mannered for such a tag), basks in his success and looks ahead to the 1992 Olympics. And of course he dreams about his career as a professional. "I've got to envy those guys," he says of such Marine Avenue players as Mike Dodd, Brent Frohoff and Tim Hovland, "going down to the beach about 11 or 12 o'clock; playing games till 6 or 7; surfing between games—I still like to surf—and then on weekends going off to make some money [on the pro beach volleyball tour]. When some guys graduate, they have to get real jobs." The notion seems puzzling to him.
He even thinks ahead to the day when his brother can join him in the beach game, a two-man team of high-jumping, ball-slamming Ivies in a league all their own. Wait a minute. League...Ivies...Ivie League! But that's another story.