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He Courted a New Game : Basketball Failures Lead Barnett to Success as Outsider Hitter in Volleyball at Pepperdine

February 09, 1996|IRENE GARCIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MALIBU — Kevin Barnett twice failed to make the North High basketball team in Naperville, Ill.

He tried out because he loved the game, but also because it would keep him out of the house.

Barnett was a rebellious teenager who didn't get along with his parents and wanted to find an extracurricular activity that would allow him to spend time away from them.

Spurned by the basketball coach, he settled for a spot on the volleyball team. Since the program was created at Naperville during Barnett's junior year, the team wasn't great.

"I knew nothing about volleyball and I didn't care," Barnett said. "It was just an excuse to get away from my parents."

He made the high school volleyball team and after two years at Pierce College--one as a bench-warmer and another as a key starter--Barnett, 21, is Pepperdine's best outside hitter.

The 6-foot-6 junior never imagined his mediocre and short-lived high school volleyball career would lead to a starting position on a top-notch Division I college team that competes in the nation's toughest conference.

In the powerful Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, Barnett regularly faces athletes who have been playing organized volleyball for many years.

In no way has he indicated he's a relative newcomer to the sport. He leads the seventh-ranked Waves with 170 kills and ranks among the team leaders with 44 digs, nine aces and 29 blocks.

Barnett ranks ninth among NCAA hitters.

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'He's a great player," said UC Santa Barbara Coach Ken Preston, whose fourth-ranked Gauchos defeated the Waves last week in five games. "We couldn't stop him till the end when we played them. That's how we won. We finally were able to contain him some."

Barnett didn't even plan to pursue volleyball in college. He said he moved to California after high school to get "real far away" from his parents.

Barnett enjoyed his visit with an uncle in Hermosa Beach during a summer vacation. When he turned 18, he moved in with his uncle for a couple of weeks before renting his own apartment in Redondo Beach.

To pay bills, Barnett worked at a restaurant. During the day, he hung out at the beach playing two-man volleyball.

"That was a rude awakening," he said. "I thought I was real good and I found out right away what good volleyball was. Those guys could play."

After a year of working and playing on the sand, Barnett wanted to go back to school. A friend who played at Loyola Marymount suggested he contact Rick McLaughlin, the coach.

Minor problem: Barnett's grades were not very good, so McLaughlin gave him the number of Ken Stanley, the coach at Pierce.

"He said Ken Stanley was the best JC coach there is," Barnett said. "So I enrolled at Pierce."

As a freshman in 1994, Barnett rarely played.

"It ripped me up," he said.

It also made him hungry to compete.

In his sophomore season, Barnett blossomed. He was Western State Conference co-player of the year. He led the Brahmas in kills, aces and blocks and was selected all-tournament at the State championships.

Pierce had a 38-4 record in Barnett's two seasons, and reached the playoffs both times.

"His first year on the team I wasn't even sure he'd ever play for us," Stanley said. "When he got here he took wild swings and he needed training."

But Stanley could see Barnett's raw talent and athletic ability. With enough practice, he figured Barnett would become a solid hitter.

"He just got better and better as the year went on," Stanley said. "He developed tremendously."

Loyola and UC Irvine also recruited Barnett, but he was already set to play for the Waves.

On the first day of college volleyball signings in April, Barnett committed to Pepperdine. It was like a dream come true.

"I'm very happy to be here, playing Division I volleyball," Barnett said. "A lot of people said, 'There's no way you're going to play Division I volleyball!' I guess I took the roundabout way to get here."

Barnett says he adjusted at Pepperdine so quickly because his game improved dramatically during the summer when he trained with the U.S. National B Team in Chula Vista.

At the intense, three-week camp Barnett worked out with the nation's top young players.

"All the stars were there so it was great for me," Barnett said. "I saw the best Division I had to offer and I learned a lot."

Now that he has accomplished what seemed to many an unrealistic goal, Barnett wants to take it a step further. He would like to make a living playing volleyball, indoor overseas or on the professional beach tour.

"He has a good future in the sport," said Marv Dunphy, who has coached Pepperdine to three NCAA titles. "He has good size and strength and he's very competitive."

Dunphy, a former Olympic coach who led the 1988 U.S. team to a gold medal in Seoul, South Korea, says Barnett would do well on the beach because he is so versatile.

"Hitting is his strength but he also can play the entire game," Dunphy said. "He's a great all-around player."

If a pro volleyball career doesn't work out, Barnett has a backup plan. He will attend veterinary school after earning a degree in biology at Pepperdine.

The one thing he won't consider is moving back home. He said he gets along better with his parents now that he lives thousands of miles away.

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