Talk about great expectations. In the October issue of Volleyball magazine, Alix Klineman of Manhattan Beach, Calif., is described by her club coach as having "the potential to be the best player in the country and maybe the best volleyball player ever to come out of the United States." That's a pretty heavy burden to place on the willowy, 6'4" frame of a 14-year-old high school sophomore. As sports history shows, great expectations don't always lead to great accomplishments--for every Peyton Manning, after all, there's a Ryan Leaf.
Still, the assessment of Klineman's potential carries some credibility. Her coach, Joy McKienzie, is a former volleyball All-America and NCAA champion who also mentored Cynthia Barboza, the 2003 high school player of the year and an alternate on the 2004 Olympic team at age 17. National youth team coach Rich Zeciski, who knows the dangers of making predictions about players so young, notes that "Joy doesn't usually lavish praise."
Klineman already has had loads of success for a person her age. Last spring she was invited with other high school players to train with the U.S. national team in Colorado Springs; she was the youngest player among the group by nearly a year. Shortly after that she toured Australia with her club team. In early July she was a starter on Zeciski's youth national squad, which won a gold medal at an international tournament in Puerto Rico and qualified for the 2005 youth world championships. Later that month she won an under-18 gold medal at the beach volleyball Junior Olympics in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Last Saturday she led Mira Costa High to the California state title, serving up 20 kills, 11 digs and five aces against Nevada Union of Grass Valley to earn championship-game MVP honors.
Though Klineman still has time to grow, she's blessed with the physical tools she'll need to succeed in her sport; says Zeciski, "She's all long levers." But what really impresses those who have worked with her is her character. At the Puerto Rico tournament this summer, Zeciski benched Klineman because her hitting was off. "I like to watch kids when they're not playing and see how they respond," he says. "She did not sulk. She came back with her hitting properly realigned; in the finals she took 15 swings, and had 12 kills and no errors."
December 13, 2004
McKienzie also notes Klineman's determination to improve. "If Alix does something wrong and it's six o'clock and practice is over, she's begging us to do some more drills," McKienzie says. "If you find that in any athlete, you know you've got something."
In some ways Klineman is a typical teenager. The walls of her bedroom are covered with pictures of her friends and photos of sunsets that she took. Asked to name a favorite TV show, she comes up blank--not unexpected given her year-round volleyball schedule. She giggles a little when discussing her week of training with the national team. "I was the worst one there," she says humbly, but that experience gave her something to build on. "I realized they were better than me, and I had to try to do the best I could."
And if that means someday being the best player in her sport, she seems ready for the challenge--or as ready as any 14-year-old can be. "If someone says I'm really good, that doesn't prove anything," she says. "I'm only going to become as good as I work to be. Volleyball's pretty much my life."
Long Beach State will host the NCAA women's volleyball Final Four on the weekend of Dec. 16-18, and the California teams will need all the home-state advantage they can get. Two-time defending champ USC entered the season on a 47-game winning streak but went 19-5 and earned just an eighth seed in the tournament, highest among the 13 California schools that made the field of 64. This year's favorite is Nebraska, the last non-California school to take the title, in 2000. The Huskers feature a stifling D (their 4.05 blocks per game lead the nation) and a firebrand who's a Cali girl--junior Jennifer Saleaumua (inset), a national high school player of the year at Bonita Vista High in San Diego and the niece of former NFL lineman Dan Saleaumua. --B.S.