LOS ANGELES – Daniel Stork doesn’t even remember being hit by the volleyball. But during practice in February the UC Irvine sophomore setter got blasted on the right side of his head near his temple.
“I’ve actually never seen a player in that circumstance,” UC Irvine coach John Speraw said. “He got hit in the head and basically got knocked out cold.”
The blow sent him down a dark path from which he emerged triumphantly Thursday night in the Anteaters’ national semifinal victory against Penn State in the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship.
“That was a lot of fun. I was just so happy to be out there playing again and competing,” said Stork, whose team plays USC for a fourth time this season on Saturday, this time for the national championship.
Against Penn State, Irvine lost the first set, 25-18, but bounced back and put the Nittany Lions on the ropes with 25-18, 25-15 victories. But things were out of kilter in the fourth set. The Anteaters trailed 12-6 and Speraw, who said he’d been thinking about making the sub earlier, sent Stork in for Chris Austin.
Stork responded in a big way, notching five assists, stunning Penn State with a service ace that pulled his team to 12-9 in the midst of a 4-1 run that changed the game, and he had a big dig. Which wasn’t bad for a guy who just a few weeks earlier was still dealing with headaches, car sickness, and the inability to read fine print and focus for more than a few minutes at a time.
“There were times when I was just exhausted from not being able to do anything and I wanted to come back,” the 6-foot-4 Stork said. “There was a week when I was able to come back and I practiced for a few days and the symptoms came back and I was out another month after that.
“I just tried to keep a positive attitude and help the team as much as I could.”
Especially considering how well he was playing. Stork led the way when Irvine beat visiting USC 3-1 on Jan. 27. But he wasn’t available when the Anteaters lost at USC 3-1 on April 7.
“It was tough to watch,” he admitted.
And when he got back he wasn’t really back.
“They told me I couldn’t do anything over-strenuous for about a week,” Stork said. “I was on a stationary bike. I couldn’t jog because they didn’t want my head bouncing. It was pretty rough.”
Junior Will Montgomery said it wasn’t lost on Stork’s teammates what he was going through.
“It wasn’t only that his head was hurting and he wasn’t allowed to play. He was also pretty bummed out,” Montgomery said. “I had to sit out last year with an injury and we talked about it a few times. He was not having a good time sitting out and watching and I was filling in for him setting second string and he was helping me out, which was great. Despite how bummed he was it was awesome having him still contribute to the team like that.”
Stork played briefly at UC San Diego in the last match of the regular season on April 14. But he watched again when Irvine upset USC last Friday in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament semifinals behind another stellar effort by Chris Austin, who had a career-high 62 assists in that match as Irvine rallied from an 0-2 deficit to win in five sets.
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“I think that’s really the untold story of our championship run, that we’ve been able to do this with our backup setter,” Speraw said. “Obviously we’ve been having great contributions from so many bench guys, but the guy people don’t talk about is Chris Austin. He’s done a fantastic job.”
In the MPSF final, in which Irvine beat Stanford 3-2, Stork again got on the court. Austin, who had 44 assists and two block assists, will start again Saturday night when the fourth matchup between the teams decides the national championship, and, interestingly, the two seem to cheer hardest for each other when they’re not in the court.
“Our whole team culture is based on that,” said Austin, a 6-3 junior from Henderson, Nev., said. “Our depth is so useful we feel we can put anybody on the court at any time and at some time or another they’ve been a starter for UC Irvine, literally every single position.
“So any time you’re not playing your best or somebody else is not playing their best you don’t have to worry.”
Stork is the middle child of Jeff and Sabine Stork. His older brother, Matthew, played at Cal State Northridge where Sabine played in college and Jeff is the women’s coach. Jeff, who played at Pepperdine, was also the setter on the U.S. team that won the 1988 Olympics.
“There were always volleyballs around my house. Me and my brother played baseball with them,” Daniel said. He never saw his dad play in person but has watched videos. Both his parents coached him at one time or another when he was a younger club player.
After the victory against Penn State, Jeff Stork “said good job and gave me a little fist bump. That’s all. My mom was a little more emotional.”
His teammates might have been, too.
“For him to come in, especially in a huge game like that, to keep a level head, with us being down in the depths that we were in and be steady and pop some floaters and pick up a huge ace like he did, that’s just big time,” freshman middle Scott Kevorken said.
It’s likely that he’ll get the call again against USC. Speraw made it clear he’s comfortable with not only subbing setters but making a change at any position. In the meantime, Stork will be standing at the end of the bench, cheering hard but ready to come in.
“Chris has been running a really good offense and we’ve made it this far with him,” Stork said. “But no matter where I am, on the bench or playing, I’ll be ready no matter what.”