NEW YORK — When the U.S. men's volleyball team won four straight matches from the powerful Soviet Union last week, it was with a familiar cast.
Five of the six starters who brought home gold medals from the Olympics last August played key roles as the Americans swept a series of exhibitions in the Northwest, then won again Sunday night in the opening round of the USA Cup in Madison Square Garden.
But Dusty Dvorak, hailed last summer as one of the three best setters in the world, spent most of the matches on the bench.
He'll be on the sidelines again tonight when the Americans meet the Soviets in the final match of the USA Cup in Springfield, Mass.
If Jeff Stork has his way, Dvorak will never rejoin the starting lineup.
Stork, 25, assumed the setting duties last May as Dvorak took a break from competition. The team has not skipped a beat, however, as it continues to establish America as a world power in a sport it invented but took almost a century to master.
Stork's ascension has been quick.
A setter is considered the equivalent of a football quarterback. It usually takes a while for him to learn the offense and to become accustomed to his new teammates.
Dvorak, who rejoined the team two weeks ago after spending the winter playing in Italy and most of the summer playing on the beach, was the U.S. starter for three years before the Olympics.
But here are the Americans, only three months after Stork's promotion to the starting lineup, routinely beating the Soviets, champions of every major tournament they have entered since 1976. The Soviets were Olympic gold medalists in 1980 and winners of the quadrennial world championship in 1978 and 1982.
In other words, the U.S. is routinely beating the best the sport has to offer.
It's not all his doing, of course, but this is one Stork who really delivers.
The former All-City selection from Taft High has played so well, in fact, that Steve Timmons, the team's player of the year in 1984, says only half-jokingly that the stage has been set for a full-blown setter controversy.
"Everybody's really comfortable with both of them," said Karch Kiraly, the team's captain.
"Jeff has done a super job considering how little experience he had internationally."
All of that praise would seem to be pretty heady stuff. Stork played briefly on the U.S. team in 1983, but he was vacationing in Northern California last summer while his current teammates were beating Brazil in the Olympic final.
The former Pepperdine All-American seems unfazed by the pressure.
An unflappable type who takes a businesslike approach to the game, Stork doesn't seem overly concerned with the challenge that the return of Dvorak represents--or with the formidable task of playing the most important position for what may be the best volleyball team in the world.
Not one to gloat, he said: "The way I look at it is, Dvorak's a good player and he's proven that over the last several years, but right now I'm starting and if he's going to get the spot back, he's going to have to earn it."
Marv Dunphy, the U.S. coach and Stork's coach at Pepperdine, has a simple explanation for Stork's unflinching outlook.
"Sometimes guys are bothered by this and that," Dunphy said. "They become concerned about things that are beyond their control. But Jeff doesn't let too many things get in his way.
"He's from Topanga Canyon. This doesn't compare to fires and floods."
Dunphy also grew up in Topanga Canyon, and he shares a certain affinity with almost everybody who has ever lived there.
Stork and Dunphy grew up about 12 years and one mile apart.
Although they didn't realize it until many years later, Dunphy worked as a lifeguard at a pool where Stork often swam with friends. Dunphy said jokingly that he probably "sat him down for running and chased him out of there a few times."
The chase continued several years later when they met in Arlington, Tex., at the 1981 U.S. Volleyball Assn. championships.
Dunphy, who had just returned to Pepperdine after a three-year hiatus to pursue his doctorate, was in the market for players.
Stork was No. 1 on his list.
Stork, the youngest of six children, had taken up the sport as a 12-year-old in a co-ed recreational league in the San Fernando Valley. He doesn't remember how he became a setter, but by the time he was a senior at Taft in 1978, he was one of the best in the City. He led the Toreadors to the 1978 City final.
Several colleges expressed interest, but Stork told them he was tired of school.
Three years later, after taking classes at Pierce College for two years and playing on a club team, he decided to return to school full time.
Dunphy saw him play only once, but that was enough.
"He stood out because he was 6-4 and left-handed," Dunphy said.
Stork said he ultimately chose Pepperdine over UCLA because UCLA had almost everybody coming back from a NCAA championship team and Pepperdine had almost nobody coming back from a mediocre team.