From the Magazine: Aaron Russell

May 5, 2014 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

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The men’s volleyball team’s season ended last Thursday with a five-set loss to top-seeded (and eventual champ) Loyola Chicago in the national semifinals. It was the 16th straight Final Four trip for the Nittany Lions, who fell two wins short of the program’s third NCAA championship. For junior outside hitter Aaron Russell, it marked the end of one of the finest individual seasons in Penn State history.

Russell is the featured athlete in our May/June issue, which most Alumni Association members should have received in the past few days. We chose Russell because, even before he earned first-team All-America honors this spring, it was clear he was the guy who made the Nittany Lions go. He was named EIVA Player of the Year as a sophomore (an honor he repeated this season), thanks to team highs of 366 kills and 40 service aces. As a junior this spring, he eclipsed both of those totals, leading the Lions with 421 kills and 69 aces.

Having arrived on campus as a middle blocker—at 6-foot-9, that seems at a glance his most logical position—Russell succeeded not in spite of the switch to outside hitter, but largely because of it. Longtime Penn State coach Mark Pavlik deserves some credit for that. “I was a middle blocker ever since I started playing, but Pav told me that even when he recruited me, he saw me as an outside hitter because of my athletic ability and how I can move,” Russell says. “Switching to another position, I kind of had to learn the game all over again. It kept it interesting for me, kind of helped me from getting burned out.”

Burn out might’ve been a real issue for a kid who’s been playing virtually his whole life. Volleyball very much runs in the Russell family genes: Aaron’s father, Stewart Russell ’86, played for the Lions, and Aaron’s brother Peter, a 6-foot-5 senior outside hitter, just wrapped up his Penn State career. Stew got both boys playing the sport at an early age, and once Peter signed with the Lions out of high school, it figured Aaron would follow suit. But after growing up in Maryland and always following the family path, Aaron thought hard about trying something new. “I kind of wanted to do my own thing,” he says. He boiled his college choices down to Penn State and UC-Irvine, another national power, but an official visit to Happy Valley sealed the decision: “I loved it here.”

He’ll be back for one final season next year, without his brother but with international experience (he played with the U.S. junior national team in Turkey last summer) and the lessons learned by almost reaching his ultimate goal this spring. The 2015 national championship will be played at Stanford, meaning the guy who almost played his college ball in California will get one last chance to show those guys on the West Coast what they’re missing.

Ryan Jones, senior editor

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Entry filed under: Alumni Association, The Penn Stater Magazine. Tags: , , , , .

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