Aug. 30, 2005
No more that 20 minutes after Sean Rooney hammered home the final kill to give Pepperdine the 2005 NCAA Men's Championship in May, UCLA Coach Al Scates, was asked if Rooney was the best college player he'd ever seen. Scates hesitated momentarily, called Rooney a great player and the best one he'e seen recently, then added: "But he's not the best I've ever seen -- Karch Kiraly is the best the college player I've ever seen."
So begins the comparison. Coming off a season in which he was the best player in the college game, Rooney, 6-9, made a one-month transition to the AVP Tour. It didn't take the Illinois native long to make an impact. After starting the summer at the bottom of the qualifying bracket, he earned four main draw finishes with John Mayer, his Pepperdine roommate and teammate. Rooney, 22, recently hooked up with veteran AVP player Brian Lewis to close out the 2005 AVP season.
Rooney has been practicing with Karch this season, and we got them together on a recent day in Huntington Beach to talk volleyball. Here's the result:
Karch: You've got one of the nicest platforms that I've seen on tour as far as passing and bumping. Where did you learn that and how did you get started?
Sean: Started when I was 16 when I picked up the game.
Karch: Not 'till 16?
Sean: I started playing club, and the club I played for was very ball-control oriented. I guess before that I was kind of a gym rat while my sister was playing.
Karch: So you just didn't want to hit warm-up "2s" like every one of us? Smart choice by you. That led me to three surgeries.
Sean: I didn't really know what was going on when I was 16. I was a big goon, and for some reason, passing was the first thing I learned.
Karch: Well, I'm impressed. You don't see many big players with such good underarm ball control. So, what was your favorite thing about playing for Marv (Dunphy)?
Sean: He's so direct with what he does. There's a purpose to everything. You know you're not wasting time in practice. Some coaches prepare for the next couple of matches, but Marv's always looking towards the end and how we can win the championship.
Karch: I heard you hadn't seen an AVP event live until you played in a qualifier.
Sean: Yeah. John (Mayer) and I played in Hermosa last year. We were there and gone before I even knew what happened. And same with Santa Barbara. But back in the day, I had seen you play a couple of times on NBC.
Karch: So you never went to the Chicago event?
Holly SteinKarch KiralySean: Nope. Never.
Karch: How long did it take you to break into the main draw?
Sean: It was my third try.
Karch: That's pretty amazing to go to three tournaments, never having seen (a pro tournament) and make it in by the third one - San Diego. How'd you guys do there?
Sean: We played against Dax (Holdren) and (Jeff) Nygaard, and that was definitely interesting, especially at, like, 8:00 in the morning. Just kind of right out there after a war in the qualifier. I think we were like the 50th seed in the qualifier.
Sean: So it was a long road, but it was cool. Just seeing players that I'd been hearing about, reading about, seeing picture of , seeing on TV. It's a little bit surreal at first. We got it handed to us pretty good against Nygaard and Dax. It wasn't awful but I think it was like 16 and 17.
Karch: That's very respectable. I've seen a lot worse than that, that's for sure. I've been on the bad end than a lot worse than that. After not going through the qualifier. I've heard you were practicing down here with some hack named "Krotch" or something. How's that been?
Sean: When you called for the first time [and said], "This is Karch Kiraly," I was like, "OK, which one of my friends is messing around here?" I was thinking I was going to drive all the way down to Huntington Beach and no one would be there. John and I, we're both pretty good athletes, but we don't know anything about the [beach] game. We can't teach each other. To be able to learn from someone like you and Lewy (Brian Lewis)...I don't feel like I learned that much about any one thing in four years of college.
Karch: What's scary for the rest of the competition is that you've had so little learning experience. I think you have tremendous potential. It's got to be exciting for you when you see guys like Nygaard and Matt Fuerbringer and all these tall, strong indoor players who have come out here and had a big impact.
Sean: Another thing about training with you is you played on the national team, did some time overseas, and obviously have been out on the beach. Those are all things I've been looking at, descisions I've had to make about future stuff. So it's good to have someone to talk to about that.
Karch: Have you figured anything out? Are you enjoying the beach?
Sean: I am enjoying the beach, and, like I said, I'm still pretty green. I know that. But good things are happening. I'm going to do at least a season overseas. (Four months in Korea, starting Nov. 1). I'm not sure about the national team.
Alison LondonSean RooneyKarch: The last indoor Olympics, I heard some people in the know say that the U.S. team was one strong outside hitter short of contending for a medal. And they were contending for a medal, although in the last tow rounds in the final four they didn't win a set. What was your situation with the U.S. team the last couple of years, and how come you weren't in Athens?
Sean: Well, I guess it goes back to after my freshman year, which was the first year of this past quadrennial. I trained with the national team that summer. I got about eight matches of the international experience, which was pretty good. After that I would have thought I'd get more and more matches, but it almost went down a little bit. I played with the World University team, which was good, but it's not quite the same level.
After my junior year, before Athens, I think the mentality of the coaches was that I didn't have enough experience. I can't really say how I was skill-wise compared to the other players. [The coaches] obviously thought I needed to work on some stuff. I worked hard on those things my senior year and tried to be a better volleyball player. Marv helped me out with that. We'll see now where I end up from here. Obviously, the Olympics would be an awesome dream to fulfill.
Karch: Would you prefer to go to the Olympics on the beach or indoors?
Sean: Either way, it would be awesome. Beach just exploded this past Olympics as far as popularity goes. I guess in the next year, before I commit to one, I'm going to need to see exactly what the beach game is about, and if I think I'm progressing enough to make a run at it.
Karch: You and Lewy are playing together in Huntington Beach. How did that come about?
Sean: We actually played against Lewy in Cincinnati. After (Aaron) Boss hurt his knee, Lewy was searching for a partner, and he called me a little before Hermosa. I told him I was already playing Hermosa with John. I didn't want to tell him I was ready to go right after Hermosa, but Monday after Hermosa we talked and were ready to go.
Karch: You had to go through your first official partnership break-up recently to hook with Lewy. How did that go?
Sean: It was hard. I never really go interested in the AVP and the whole beach scene until this year. Now the events are back on TV every Sunday and Saturday, and John and I would watch them and wonder if we could qualify and get some finishes. Even that happened quicker than we ever dreamed. We were one and done up in Santa Barbara, which wasn't all that great. But then after that it was a 17th, a 13th, and we took off with it. John's a great athlete, a great volleyball player, so it was hard to split, especially since we rose so fast this year. It's hard to say to my roommate: "This is business."
Karch: I'm assuming the conversation went okay.
Sean: Oh, yeah. We're good friends. I don't think anything would come between that. we kind of agreed that both of us need to learn more. If he can get a big guy that knows more about the game that could teach him some stuff and Lewy could pass on some knowledge to me then we'd both be better players. And who know down the road?
Karch: Sure. You guys could hook up again. It's always open. Well, Sean, thanks for your time. Good luch with Lewy.
Sean: Thank you.
Rooney had his best career finish this past weekend in the AVP Boulder Open finishing 7th. In Chicago, Rooney will play in front of friends and family as he is from Wheaton, Illinois. In 2001, Rooney was awarded Illinois State High School Player of the Year.