As the starting setter for the U.S. men's volleyball team, Jeff Stork is much like the eye of a hurricane.
The former Pepperdine All-American is a calm, low-pressure center surrounded by a swirling and unforgiving group of hitters who form the most powerful volleyball team on the planet.
"If you're emotional and getting caught up in everything, you can't figure things out," Stork said. "So that's pretty much what I do--try and be rational."
Many volleyball observers reasoned that the defending Olympic champions would be ripe for a fall when Stork moved into the starting lineup in October, 1986, after Dusty Dvorak left to play for a club team in Italy.
"It wasn't easy for Jeff," outside hitter Karch Kiraly said. "Especially when you're coming in and joining a unit that is already the best in the world. It's not like when I joined and it was the 19th-best in the world."
But Stork, 28, has become firmly entrenched as the quarterback of an experienced American team that swept the Soviet Union in a recent 4-match exhibition tour, won the USA Cup at the Forum and is favored to defend its Olympic title in Seoul. This weekend, Stork and his teammates will be in the Soviet Union, where they will attempt to defend last year's first-ever title in the prestigious Savvin Cup tournament.
"Initially, it was like putting a driver in the greatest car in the world and saying, 'Just don't get into an accident.' " said Chris Marlowe, who captained the 1984 Olympic team and is now a television broadcaster. "Jeff had nowhere to go but down. If the team had lost or played poorly, everyone would have blamed him."
The transition from Dvorak to Stork was relatively smooth, but there were also trying times for veteran hitters such as Kiraly, Steve Timmons and Dave Saunders, who were used to getting their sets from a player regarded among the best in the world.
"It can get pretty frustrating when you're not clicking like you think you should or were," Saunders said. "Especially when you're in a tournament that you know you should be winning and maybe you're not. Finally, you get used to that person's style and things start clicking again, so it's OK."
Last year, Stork helped lead the U.S. team to its first Pan American Games gold medal.
"It's tough fitting into a team that has a lot of old veterans yelling at you to set the ball to them," Timmons said. "But Jeff has handled it well. We've kept our competitive edge against everyone else in the world with him setting, which is key. It's tough to find a great setter."
And as the 6-foot, 4-inch Stork found out, it is even tougher to become one.
At Pepperdine, Stork played in a 6-2 offense and took advantage of the freedom that scheme allowed him to hit and block. But when he joined the national team, he was charged with the responsibility of being the lone setter in a 5-1 offense.
"That was the toughest transition for me," said Stork, who grew up in Topanga. "I had to think more, 'Run the offense,' as opposed to playing the power type of game of hitting and blocking."
His experience as an attacker, however, has paid off. Stork is left-handed, which gives him an advantage over right-handed setters because he can hit across his body at the net. He is a legitimate threat in the U.S. attack.
"Offensively, he's perhaps the most dangerous setter in the world," Marlowe said. "He also has a very good serve."
Marv Dunphy, coach of the U.S. team, said he saw the makings of a great setter when he recruited Stork to play at Pepperdine after seeing him compete only once for a club team at the United States Volleyball Assn. championships in 1981.
"We had five scholarships and they were golden," said Dunphy, who also hails from Topanga. "I always used as a barometer for giving scholarships that the kid was the best or had the potential to be the best at his position in the country."
After the Olympics in September, Stork will decide whether he will continue his career with the national team, compete in a semipro league in Italy, pursue a master's degree or involve himself in junior programs and not compete.
"Right now, though," he said. "I'm trying not to think about too many things other than volleyball and gold medals."