12 Questions with Tom Sorensen – August 2016
1.) Having grown up in Racine, Wisconsin, how did you get started in the sport of volleyball and who contributed most to your development through your high school years?
A: I began playing because my sister told me I should play, and I was lucky enough to have a boy’s program at my high school. At the time, I considered myself a basketball player and thought volleyball would be a good complimentary sport to work on my vertical and a lot of the same movements. The most influential person was my H.S. coach Gary Sorensen, who is my second cousin and I still call him “Coach” to this day…I played for two gold medal winning coaches, I call Marv Dunphy, “Marv”, I call Doug Beal “Doug” but I call my H.S. coach “Coach” every time we cross paths.
2.) You were a big fish in a small pond here in WI. When and where did you first realize you could play with the California guys?
A: I think I realized the height of my potential between my junior year and my senior year. I attended a camp at UCSB where almost every top player in H.S. was there. I proceeded to play very well and borderline dominate the camp. The coaches from UCSB gave me a campus tour and offered me a full scholarship on the spot. It was at this point I think it started to sink in.
Also I should say this, I wasn’t the first good player to come out of Wisconsin. I played against and watched a lot of great players there. I think I was just the one who helped open the door for others to come in and see the talent that existed in Wisconsin.
3.) You were part of an incredible recruiting class for Marv Dunphy at Pepperdine in 1990. Why did you choose to play for Marv and tell us about year 1 at Pepperdine? How did your teammates take to a WI cheese head?
A: At this time I was in awe of Marv, and I still am to this day. He was fresh off coaching the national team and winning the Gold in Seoul in ’88. I recorded every match the US team played on VHS and watched them over and over and over again ‘til basically the tape wore through. That first call from Marv was like getting a call from the President for me. I took a long time to make my decision, but I think I knew all along that Pepperdine was where I wanted to go.
Going into Pep I knew a lot of my teammates, before going there a few of us decided that we were going to go there together and put Pepperdine back on the map volleyball wise(they had struggled quite a bit since their title in ‘86(which I also had on tape). But I do think some doubt existed just cuz only a few guys from the Midwest had come to the west coast and succeeded…Rod Wilde did it from Iowa a decade before, and he didn’t have any H.S. ball. On my recruiting trip I asked Marv that same question about being from Wisconsin and his reply was very matter of fact, “It’s not where you are, it’s who you are.” Something I always tell young players to this day.
4.) In 1992 your Pepperdine Waves won the NCAA men’s volleyball title! What are some of the highlights you recall from your championship season?
A: I remember a drill that we could never win, it was a sideout drill where we had to get 3 in a row before the defense stopped us once to get a big point (a very difficult standard)…we got closer and closer ‘til we finally won the drill. Once we won this drill I think we as a team thought we could beat anybody. The next match we played was at CS-Northridge, a team that had our number for the most part going into that match. Very tough team with some great competitors: Coley Kyman, Matt Unger, Axel Hagar, Kenny Lynch and others (Chris McGee was an important sub lol). We went into the Mata-dome and dispatched (for lack of a better term) in a quick 3 game match. With that monkey off of our back, I think we felt like we would not be beat. We won our half of the WIVA (the predecessor to the MPSF) and that put us up against the Long Beach St for the automatic bid to the final four. Going into that match I remember my best friend in college asking me “How do you think you guys will do?” (Mind you, earlier in the season they came to Pep and “dispatched” us in 4 fairly easily and they were number 1 all season and defending NCAA Champs) I remember telling my buddy, “We are going to win.” To which he replied “I know you’re supposed to say that, but what do you really think?” I said “WE ARE GOING TO WIN.” We beat them in 4 to go to the final 4 and wound up beating Stanford in 3 for the NCAA title. I felt like we played our best match of the year in the biggest moment, not much is more satisfying than that.
5.) You played during an incredible era of men’s collegiate volleyball in the early 90’s. Who were your favorite players to compete against as a competitor and watch as a fan?
A: I’d say the best pure attacker of the volleyball I played against was Brent Hilliard, the guy just got kills…people do not talk about the greatness of Hilliard enough. His career was cut short by a knee problem but if you put a ball above the net anywhere, good chance he was going to get a kill. Bryan Ivie was a guy I looked up to when I was a freshmen and he was a senior, he could do a lot of things great. I had a great respect for the way LBSU played, they’d do anything to get a ball up…getting hit in the face was great, as long as you got the dig. I always loved playing Nygaard, cuz in a weird way I felt like he was my protégé being from Wisconsin. Even though we didn’t become friends ‘til he got UCLA, I still like to think I helped him get there.
6.) As a member of the US Men’s Volleyball National Team, what can you tell us about your 1996 Olympics experience?
A: The moment the Olympics ended it was a miserable experience, we failed in most if not all of our goals…felt like years just wasted. The more it gets in the rear view mirror the more I appreciate it. Those times on the USA team on the road were the best times of my life no question…traveling the world with a small group of guys really brings you close together. I don’t remember a lot of the matches, but I remember the silly and nonsensical stuff…great times.
7.) Having been a member of the National Team from 1991-2000, what were some of the highlights of your time with the team? Over that time period, who were the 3 best international players you competed against?
A: Team wise, my favorite thing we did was by far taking a bronze in the world championships in 1994. While that is not as great as many other accomplishments of USA volleyball, but when you’re two or three months removed from going 0-12 in World League, I assure you a bronze at the WC’s feels like an Olympic Gold Medal. As an individual player I think the thing I may be most proud of, and it’s something I didn’t realize ‘til I hung out with Troy Dueling from Arizona Fear volleyball club (if anyone knows him let him know I talked about him, he’s not on Facebook), is that I am the only player that I am aware of in USA volleyball that played all three positions of MB/OPP/OH for over a year at each position. A team w/the storied history of USA volleyball to be the only one to have done something like that is pretty interesting. I know of a lot of guys who played OH/OPP and OPP/MB but none come to mind who did all three.
The best players I played against, man that is a really tough question. Lorenzo Bernardi from Italy was tall, could pass, could hit, could serve and block. The Italian team of that era was great and I think he was one of the biggest reasons why. Many of the Brazilian guys were special, just like their soccer team they played with such unbelievable creativity. I remember in a match the setter Mauricio dug a ball high in the middle of the court and their OH Tande came flying out of the backrow and hit on two, crushing it…I thought to myself “I’ve never even thought about doing that.” That team was something to see, especially in Brazil. I think Bas Van Goor from the Netherlands was pretty special as well. 6’10” but moved like someone much smaller and had an arm that could do whatever he wanted. He was tough to stop. To cheat a little I will also say the Grbic brothers…incredible volleyball players.
8.) In 2015 you were inducted into the Pepperdine Hall of Fame. What did that mean to you?
A: Being inducted into Pepperdine Hall of Fame meant more to me than I realized…being put in the same sentence as Jeff Stork, Bob Ctvrtlik, Craig Buck, Sean Rooney, George Roumain, Rod Wilde, Etc. is like being in a very exclusive club. Having so many friends, teammates and a lot of my opponents make the effort to come down and be a part of that night was really special for me. I’d almost forgotten how beautiful of a place it is. I consider myself truly fortunate to have played at such a great place and for such a great man like Marv Dunphy.
9.) You are now an assistant coach for both the Ottawa University Men’s and Women’s Volleyball teams in Kansas. How has playing for Marv Dunphy influenced you as a coach with your players today?
A: All I have to say about that is that half the things I say, if not more are me just parroting things that he said to me and my teammates. I need to get out of the habit of starting sentences with “my coach always said…” and just take the credit for myself lol.
10.) The game has evolved quite a bit since you last played in terms of rule changes. What are your thoughts on those changes and today’s style of play?
A: I enjoy the way the game is played today, I don’t know if I’d be big enough to play the game is it is now, but I know without a doubt I’d love the way the game is played. I always felt like one of the strengths of my game was that I could hit anything…and I’d like to take my chances with all the go’s, bics, etc. I would also really like not taking 70, 80, 90 swings in matches. I hear kids say how they are tired because they got 30 or 40 sets. To which I just roll my eyes and think “you’ve gotta be kidding me.”
11.) As we watch the US men’s indoor teams compete in this Olympiad, what are your thoughts on this team? The coach? The players? Their competition?
A: I love the way John Speraw has constructed this team, big stud pin hitters that can pass, big middles that never give up, all so explosive. Micah is wise beyond his years setting the ball. I find myself glued to the TV or webcast and chatting with USA super fan Matt Garthoff every match I can…I hope someday to get in the gym with them and pick John’s brain and steal a drill or ten.
12.) What are you up to these days? What’s new with you? Interests outside of volleyball?
A: I was away from volleyball for so long I am just kind of enjoying being back in the community that is volleyball. I get to run across old friends and teammates much more, and it’s pretty gratifying. I’ve really enjoyed trying to build this program in Ottawa. I always told myself I had a pretty good eye for talent, now I get to try to prove it, now I just need some Wisconsin kids to leave WI and take a chance in Kansas…Keep an eye out for Ottawa University volleyball men’s and women’s in the NAIA…I think we will be good in both.
And thanks for caring as to what I am doing…nice to know not everyone has forgotten me.