Two years ago, at age 25, Matt Anderson was the youngest player on the U.S. men’s volleyball team, the baby and top outside hitter on a veteran squad that suffered a stunning loss to Italy in the quarterfinals of the London Olympics.
The following March, John Speraw took over as head coach of the U.S. team. Speraw realized the national team was undergoing what he called a “generational shift.” The team that underachieved in London had been dominated by older players, some of whom had won a gold medal in 2008 at Beijing and played in multiple Olympics.
Speraw’s team was getting younger. He recognized the need to develop new leadership as he reshaped the roster in the three-year lead-up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Anderson, a hard-working, accountable star who was entering his early prime, seemed like a good place to start.
Anderson, a native of West Seneca, had established himself as one of the most dynamic players in the world. This past season, he led his professional team – Zenit Kazan – to the Russian league championship. For two years in a row, he has been the top scorer on the American national team.
He was still young, but suddenly a veteran, someone Speraw could look to for leadership. So as he prepared the U.S. team for the two-month World League competition this past spring, Speraw made a dramatic decision: He switched Anderson from left outside hitter to opposite hitter.
Speraw knew that Anderson was the sort of athlete who could handle the change. It’s subtle, but significant. Anderson was perhaps the best outside hitter on the planet. He was a three-time all-American at outside hitter at Penn State. The opposite’s role is similar but more nuanced, the most cerebral and demanding position, the one that pays the most in pro volleyball.
Anderson, who starred at West Seneca West and at Penn State, knew it would be a big change, that it would take some adjustment. He also knew it was the best thing for the American team.
“Oh, for sure,” Anderson said by phone from Anaheim, Calif., where the U.S. team is training before leaving for the finals of the World League in Florence this week. “I’m still so much more comfortable at my other position, because I’ve played it professionally and internationally for the last six years.
“To go back to this position, it’s different,” he said. “It’s foreign to me at times. But for my team right now, it’s what I need to do and it’s what we need to do, and I’m excited for it. It’s a new challenge for me, and I’m always looking for ways to better myself.”
Anderson, who is 6-10, has never stopped growing as a player. Mark Pavlik, who coached him at Penn State, scouted him as a 6-7 junior with the Eden Volleyball Club and knew he had greatness in him. Anderson started slowly, but he was national Player of the Year as a junior and led Penn State to an NCAA title.
That’s what made him the perfect anchor for volleyball’s generational shift, a star with Olympic experience and an acute sense of team. Speraw said it takes an athlete with rare character to accept a new role.
“Yeah, it does, and in two ways,” said Speraw, the only person in men’s volleyball history to win an NCAA championship as a head coach, assistant coach and player. “One, you have to be a talented volleyball player to execute skills at a different position, and that can be a challenge for most.
“The other fact is, he has to be able to accept that,” Speraw added. “When you make a change like that, there’s a decrease in performance. So here’s a guy who is one of the best outside hitters in the world and we’re asking him to move away from his comfort zone. His willingness to embrace that really speaks to his character and commitment to the team.”
Anderson said it was humbling to accept a change of positions, “an ego check.” He wouldn’t call it a sacrifice. His coach disagreed. Speraw said it was a supremely unselfish gesture, the sort that coaches relish. When teammates see a star sacrifice, they’re more willing to do so.
“If your best player is willing to sacrifice his own self-interest for the betterment of the team, that speaks wonderfully to the lessons he’s teaching to the younger players,” Speraw said.
It’s on the court, of course, where Anderson makes his most resounding statements.
If the change to opposite hitter was awkward, you wouldn’t have known it during the World League competition. Anderson was the leading U.S. scorer as the Americans advanced to the final round of six in Florence.
The U.S. did well in pool play at the 28-nation, two-month international event. They beat Serbia in four hard-fought sets last week to advance to the World League finals in Italy. Anderson was the top scorer with 19 points.
Anderson has come a long way since he joined the national team as a 22-year-old in 2009. His older teammates teased him for being the young guy in those days. He struggled with pneumonia that summer and spent two weeks in the hospital.
His father, Mike, who was his biggest fan and a fixture at Penn State games, died of a heart attack early in 2010. It was a tough year for Anderson, but his dad’s memory spurred him on. Mike had been a good athlete and a team guy. By the summer of 2011, Anderson was the best outside hitter in the country.
Three years later, he’s one of the top players in his sport. Speraw said Anderson would be in any discussion of the best player in the world. Anderson says he’s still approaching his prime.
“I think I’m getting closer to it,” Anderson said. “I still think I have a lot to improve on, personally. But I’m definitely not the young guy on the team anymore. We have guys who are still in college playing with us.
“But I’m embracing the role. I like it. I’m in the middle, so I can relate to a lot of the veterans on the team, and I can relate to the young guys. So I feel I can bridge the gap a little bit and be a central piece of that.”
Anderson has been named male indoor Player of the Year in the U.S. the last two years. He’s a star in Kazan, Russia, where there is a larger-than-life poster of him outside the arena.
“I’m known in my city,” he said. “But people are pretty good at keeping to themselves. I don’t know if it’s the culture or a respect factor over there. Someone will ask me for a picture occasionally,” he said, “but usually it’s just an acknowledgment like a wave or hi, an ‘I know who you are’ kind of thing.”
The Russian league runs from September to May. Then it’s on to the national team. Anderson has about three weeks off from volleyball each year. That doesn’t leave much time for socializing. Like his dad, he’s a dedicated family man. He Skypes most days with his mother, Nancy, and his four siblings.
Anderson has four tattoos on his body. He has the Anderson family crest on his right rib cage, plus his father’s initials and ‘8-16-52’ and ‘1-23-10’, the dates of Mike’s birth and death. The latest, on the inside of his wrist, is a tattoo of a blue puzzle piece, the symbol for autism awareness.
His nephew, Tristin, has autism. His nephew’s name is inscribed in ink beneath the puzzle piece. Tristin, the son of Anderson’s sister, Joelle, wrote his name on a piece of paper and it was copied onto Matt’s wrist.
“It’s a constant reminder,” Matt said. “When I see it, I don’t only think of him. I think of my family and our struggles and trials and tribulations along the way. We’re like any family in lot of ways, and we’re different in a lot of ways. We’ve always been able to stay close and talk to each other.”
Anderson flew home after the London Olympics to go on vacation with his family. His mother was in London for the Games. Not getting a medal was a letdown, but he figured he would have other chances. He said he would like to play in at least two more Olympics.
Speraw has similar ambitions. He said volleyball players typically peak between 27 and 32.
He said Anderson has the perfect volleyball physique and should be in his prime for the next two Olympics – at Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020.
“Believe me, that thought has crossed my mind,” Speraw said. “I think he’s nearing his prime right now and his prime window happens to fall between two Olympics. That’s really fortunate for us, and for him.
“I think he could potentially do that if he wants. He’s going to be able to do whatever he wants. He’s that kind of a volleyball player.”