Wichita volleyball matches a meeting of new, young faces

The U.S. men’s volleyball team that will take the court Friday at Koch Arena for the first of two FIVB World League matches against Argentina won’t resemble the squad that finished fifth at the 2012 Olympics.

It will have a new coach and a much younger roster.

Such changes are inevitable the year following an Olympics campaign. Veteran players are worn down from a lengthy year playing overseas for their club teams and training with the national team. Many of them take this time off and come back fresh the following summer. New players are shuffled in to take their place, at least for a little while.

U.S. men’s coach John Speraw understands this routine better than anyone. So he is embracing it.

“It’s not going to be perfect volleyball,” said Speraw when asked about his expectations this weekend. “For a lot of them it is going to be their first national team experience and their first international competition with the A team. I just want the players to compete really hard and play a good mental game. I want to play one point at a time and not hold onto the mistakes that happen along the way, because those are going to be inevitable.

“I want them to be great teammates and grow from there with our skills. We need to push our limits to find an edge that will help us become a competitive team. Other teams in the world are in a position where they went young in the previous quadrennial like we are talking about doing this quadrennial. We have the challenge of going up against some teams that are very experienced in our pool.”

The Americans will face Argentina, Poland, France, Bulgaria and Brazil this summer.

Speraw isn’t sure what lineups he will use during the opening match against Argentina or the core roster he will likely take to future games. Other than outside hitter Matt Anderson, one of the youngest contributors on the Americans’ 2012 roster, he is short on proven, returning talent.

As a former assistant with the team, he knows the players well. He also coached or recruited many of them in college. He has been evaluating young players for weeks in scrimmages, and will continue to do so when the matches begin in Wichita.

“We will use that time to take a look at some young guys who can help us,” Speraw said. “It’s a fun time, because you get to take a look at some new people. There are a few veterans who are excited about the way things are going, too. We are looking forward to seeing some new faces in Wichita.”

Kawika Shoji will be one of those new faces. The former Stanford standout is in his first season setting for the national team after showing promise on the youth and secondary squads.

In some ways, he is treating this trip as a tryout. No matter what happens, though, he knows he will enjoy the experience.

“I’ve been with the team, but I have never traveled with the top team to any of the world events,” Shoji said. “It is a great opportunity for me and all of the young players, just to be able to get the experience of the highest level. We want to win both matches, but we also understand it is a long process, just one step along the chain to Rio. Hopefully we can play well and get better.”

The 2016 Olympics are three years away, but the team Speraw takes with him to Brazil will begin taking forming at least partially based on what happens at Koch Arena.

“In some respects every year is a tryout, even for the veteran guys,” Speraw said. “It has always been that way. They don’t name the Olympic team until a few weeks beforehand. A lot of people think everything comes together during the Olympic year, but, for us, it is four years of hard work to make that roster.”