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Growing Into the Game : Fuerbringer Gets Serious, Makes Mark in Volleyball

HOW THEY'RE DOING. One in a series

March 31, 1994|MIKE REILLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stanford volleyball Coach Ruben Nieves attended the 1991 State high school basketball finals in Oakland to catch a glimpse of Estancia High's Matt Fuerbringer--and the Cardinal's volleyball future.

Fuerbringer, only a junior, left Oakland with a State championship medal.

Nieves left so impressed that, three years later, he can still rattle off Fuerbringer's highlight reel like he just saw it on ESPN.

First minute, Fuerbringer went over two players and dunked. Went high for rebounds. Ran the floor well and showed the quick leaping ability that makes good collegiate volleyball players into great ones.

"Matt was just an animal out there," Nieves said. "He was dunking from the first minute of the game and was asking for the ball down the stretch. That's what really struck me about Matt, that when it gets down to the nitty-gritty in a game, he's at his best."

Imagine, Nieves thought, what this 6-foot-7 kid could do for the Cardinal.

Three years later, he is finding out.

Convinced by Nieves that his athletic skills were better suited for volleyball, Fuerbringer turned down basketball scholarship offers from several small West Coast schools to become the centerpiece of Nieves' fifth-ranked Stanford team.

Coming off a redshirt freshman season and arthroscopic surgery on his right hitting shoulder, Fuerbringer leads the nation in kills per game (7.22). His 44 kills against USC in February is the second-best single-match performance in the nation this season behind San Diego State's John Hyden (49 kills).

"I'm pretty surprised to be getting as many sets as I have been," Fuerbringer said, "especially coming off last season. It wasn't really a freshman year for me because volleyball was still such a new sport to me.

"I played since the seventh grade and in high school, but not as much as I do here. It was a learning experience."

And a painful one.

Early in fall practice, Nieves noticed several flaws in Fuerbringer's hitting technique. As the coaches and trainers worked with him to correct his approach and swing, they noticed swelling in his shoulder.

"It was a pre-existing condition," Nieves said. "Matt developed it long before he got here. Our adjustment in his arm swing not only helped him be more effective as a hitter, but it has helped him stay healthy."

Fuerbringer has his own theory.

Since Estancia's basketball season ran late because of the playoffs every year, he only competed in about half of each volleyball season.

As a result, he was hitting only about half as much as other high school players, and his shoulder strength wasn't developed for the amount of hitting required in a college practice or match.

Stanford trainers told him a loose joint in his shoulder forced his muscles and tendons to swell and pinch against each other. Ice, rehabilitation and anti-inflammatory drugs helped, but it didn't solve the problem. But the arthroscopic surgery last May did, repairing some scarred tissue.

"They cleaned it out using this new laser technique at the Stanford Hospital," Fuerbringer said. "It worked great, but it was a long road back. The recovery time was supposed to be six to eight weeks, but it took six months. The first few weeks of practice I hit only every other day. It just wasn't strong enough yet."

Fuerbringer still ices the shoulder and takes anti-inflammatory drugs, but said the shoulder is nearly back to 100%.

"I'll have to do those things all my life," he said. "The surgery wasn't a cure-all, but it got me to the point where I can play."

As a result, his shoulder, and Stanford opponents, have taken a pounding this season. Besides his 49-kill match, he has matches of 40 kills against Indiana Purdue-Ft. Wayne, 39 against UC Santa Barbara, 36 against Loyola Marymount and 32 against Long Beach State.

"His shoulder has held up really well," Nieves said. "I think his hitting load speaks for itself. There's no way he could hit that many balls in a match with a sore shoulder."

Fuerbringer's play has a young Stanford team in contention for a national title. The Cardinal has started as many as two true freshmen, sophomore Mike Lambert and Fuerbringer. After a 1-3 start, they have improved to 11-7.

"I always thought I would be playing basketball in college," said Fuerbringer, who averaged 19 points as a senior at Estancia, leading the Eagles to a Southern Section title and a State championship in his three seasons as a varsity starter.

"But I wanted to play for a national championship team in college, and the basketball schools recruiting me, UC Santa Barbara, University of San Diego and Cal State Fullerton, weren't going to contend for a national championship."

Stanford's volleyball team is a national contender almost every year, a point Nieves made clear during his recruiting visits.

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