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Volleyball’s gold standard

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Clayton Stanley was best scorer, best server and most valuable player at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
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LONG BEACH, Calif. » The program cover for this year’s FIVB World League features Honolulu native Clayton Stanley standing with hands on hips, jaw set and piercing eyes looking straight ahead.

The pose communicates intensity, concentration, resolution. It reflects Stanley’s approach to volleyball. Yet it does not fully define his character. The former standout at the University of Hawaii combines fire with serenity while maintaining his status as one of the world’s best all-around players. Stanley, 33, seeks to play in his third Olympic Games next year in London after helping the United States reach the final round of the World League earlier this month.

“That’s why I’m here,” the 6-foot-9 opposite hitter said. “If I wasn’t, I’d be back home seeing my family.”

Stanley played such a vital role as the United States won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics that he received awards as the Olympic volleyball tournament’s best scorer, best server and most valuable player.

“He’s a huge part of our success,” United States natioanl team coach Alan Knipe said. “There are so many things that make him real special.”

One is a jump serve that blends power with vigorous rotation. Stanley showed July 2 against Puerto Rico why he led the World League’s intercontinental round in serving. At the beginning of the second set, Stanley scored five successive points — including two aces — to give the United States a 6-1 lead in the midst of a three-game sweep.

“I think his serve has set him apart in the world,” U.S. team captain and outside hitter Reid Priddy said. “That, in itself, is such a weapon. At any point, he could go on a run.”

Stanley’s serve comprises just one of his skills. Against Puerto Rico, Stanley would dive on his belly or slide on his knees to make digs — sometimes one handed — or combine with teammates for blocks, as well as pound kills.

“I’m a big fan of working hard,” Stanley said. “I try to focus. I try to do what I need to do to get the job done.”

That hard work starts where no crowds gather.

“He comes to practice and he’s good every day — not just at the skills he’s good at but in all the little things,” Knipe said. “He brings the same level every day. He sets a super high standard, and he demands that of the guys who play with him.”

“Some players, if they have a match and take a lot of swings, they’ll rest the next day,” opposite hitter Evan Patak said. “But he’s always working out, lifting hard, whatever.”

For Stanley, preparation extends beyond the physical.

“Here’s the Olympics’ most valuable player and he wants to hear feedback,” Knipe said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about in his game. He wants to get better all the time. He’s a really easy guy to coach.”

Stanley’s teammates call him really easy to play with.

“Clay’s extremely loyal and very caring,” Priddy said. “He’s a guy who’s going to support you and give you five when you’ve gotten down and made a mistake. I think that’s an important piece of the puzzle. It’s good to have guys who just put a hand on a shoulder and say, ‘Get the next one.’ “

Stanley demonstrated that trait after teammate Matt Anderson sent a serve far beyond the end line. Without histrionics, Stanley came up to Anderson and slapped his palm for encouragement.

“He just has a great attitude all the time — every practice, every match,” Patak said. “Even when he’s not playing well, where a lot of players get down on themselves and go into a hole, he’s always just Clay.

“It’s refreshing to be around him when that happens. That’s the kind of attitude your teammates should have.”

Stanley’s attitude includes a bit of gentle mischief.

“He’s kind of a big teddy bear,” Priddy said. “It catches people off-guard when he uses the high-pitched voice and jokes around. He’s the 6-foot-9 bruiser who, when you get to know him, is pretty mild-mannered and soft-spoken.”

Stanley grew up in a volleyball family. His father, Jon, is a two-time Olympian and Volleyball Hall of Fame inductee. Jon Stanley competed for the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with the late Tom Haine, his future step-grandfather and fellow Hall of Fame inductee. Stanley’s stepfather, Marc Haine, was an All-American at San Diego State. The Haines and Jon Stanley were all named to multiple USVBA All-America teams.

Stanley graduated from Kaiser High School, which did not offer boys volleyball. He did not begin organized volleyball until he was 17, when he competed for Outrigger Canoe Club at the Junior Olympics. At UH, Stanley played three seasons and set the single-match record for kills, 50, in 1999.

But not until later that year, when he played in the Pan American and World University games, did Stanley gain enough trust in his own ability to see a future in volleyball.

“When you get to play with a bunch of really good athletes, that tends to help you improve,” Stanley said. “That was the best eye-opener for me as far as making a decision of where I want to be and how good I can be.”

Now, Stanley serves as more than a pivotal figure in the United States’ efforts to qualify for next year’s Olympics. He symbolizes quiet, dedicated passion.

“Clay doesn’t really take days off,” Patak said. “For him always to work hard for you, directly or indirectly, that’s huge. Being his teammate, that’s the best form of respect.”

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