Feb. 11, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. -
Back in 2006, Stanford's recruitment of volleyball player Evan Romero had several potential flaws.
Could a volleyball player with only three months of club experience excel in the big time?
Would he be willing to leave his comfortable Cuban-American roots and move across the country?
And, most important of all, was he the right kid?
That wasn't a figurative question about Romero's ability to fit into the Stanford program. Coach John Kosty literally did not know if he was recruiting the player he noticed at the Junior Olympic national tournament.
When Romero's club coach in Miami sent an e-mail to Stanford describing the player's talent and outstanding academic work, Kosty remembered being impressed with a certain player on the South Florida club team. He just didn't know if this scholarship request was for the same person.
"Can you send us a picture?" Kosty requested.
"We knew who we thought Evan Romero was," Kosty said Wednesday. "I had a picture of Evan in my head. I just wanted to make sure the picture was him."
Kosty was relieved to find out it was. Now, Romero is a four-year starter at opposite hitter and the school's all-time leader in kills in the rally-scoring era (since 2001).
As Stanford enters the heart of its men's volleyball season, Romero leads the No. 5 Cardinal into a big home weekend, with a Friday match against No. 3 UCLA at Maples Pavilion and a Saturday match at Burnham Pavilion against defending NCAA champion UC Irvine. Each begins at 7 p.m.
Stanford (5-3) has depended on Romero since his freshman year, when an admittedly "raw" and inexperienced player was immediately thrown into action and struggled as much as his team, which went 3-25.
"I remember one game against Pepperdine, I was blocked maybe eight times," Romero said. "I thought I was pretty much done. I was very frustrated."
Instead, Kosty looked at him and said, "Keep swinging."
The moment became a turning point for Romero, who realized his coaches were not going to lose in faith in him and were willing to give him the time he needed to reach his potential.
In the meantime, Romero has continued to develop the volleyball skills that he lacked when he arrived at Stanford from Monsignor Pace High School in Opa-locka, Fla., where the team's strategy was, "throw the ball up real high and let him jump up and hit it," in the words of Stanford assistant coach Ken Shibuya.
Height (6-foot-5) and athleticism made Romero an intriguing prospect, not only for Stanford, but in high school. Romero was a basketball player until his junior varsity basketball coach, Altoine Williams - who doubled as the volleyball coach - convinced Romero to join the volleyball team.
That was when it all started. At an age - as a high school sophomore - when many of his current teammates were perfecting their craft, Romero was just beginning his.
He was competitive kid, fiery, a product of his environment, and a source of pride for his immigrant family. Maybe that's why it all worked.
In 1961, fewer than five years after Fidel Castro and his men landed on Cuban shores in a small boat to ignite the Cuban Revolution, Evan's mother Iliana was among hundreds of thousands of Cubans to flee the country for the United States. She was 3 years old when her father, Rafael Arias, a salesman who would not have the opportunity to continue under the new regime, obtained a work visa through an American textile company to bring his family with him.
Jesus Romero was 8 when he left Cuba in 1967 on one of the so-called "Freedom Flights," the twice-daily 45-minute airlifts that transported 265,000 refugees from Cuba, to Miami from 1965-1973. With commercial flights between the two countries suspended after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson negotiated for the transportation, which was granted to those Castro called "anti-revolutionaries."
By applying for inclusion, Jesus' parents were branded as traitors and lost their jobs, as a cook and seamstress. They and other members of the extended family banded together and found work on family farms, and away from the taunts, for those who sought to leave Cuba.
By the time they arrived in Miami, the Romeros had little money, few clothes and could not speak English.
From these beginnings, Jesus and Iliana Romero each became CPAs, with Jesus now working as a financial analyst for Merrill Lynch.
Evan Romero's paternal grandfather died when Evan was young, but his grandmother, Esther Romero, became a second mother to him, picking up Evan every day from school from pre-school through his sophomore year in high school.
Living in an insular Cuban-American community in Miami, she never learned English, and never needed to. Evan would speak to her in Spanish, gather memories and stories of the old country, and savor her Cuban faire of black beans and rice, fried plantains and roasted pork.
Esther became Evan's main lifeline to Cuba, a place he has never been, but takes great pride in representing. That's because he understands the responsibility that comes with justifying the sacrifices of those before him.
"As I was growing up, my sister, Erika, and I had this silent role in mind that we knew how much our parents had worked," he said. "We had to make sure to work just as much.
"For me, to be at Stanford and my sister to attend University of Florida is a testament to the work our parents did. They both are role models. We know they put in a lot of hard work and so should we."
When it came time to leave for Stanford, his grandmother asked, in Spanish, "Why?" Evan was the first in his family to go away to school, and the first to leave the tight-knit circle of relatives that had made a new life for itself on U.S. soil.
The choice to leave was not easy, and was a major concern for the Stanford coaching staff.
That's when Al Roderigues, the ever-positive longtime Stanford assistant coach, told Romero and his father on Evan's recruiting trip, "Don't worry you'll have a fellow Hispanic with you at all times."
For the most part, that's been true. Roderigues became something of an adoptive parent for the five members Romero's volleyball class, driving them in vans on road trips and encouraging them to keep their heads up during that awful freshman season by creating the mantra of "Worst to First."
Roderigues, now battling stomach cancer, continues to be an inspiration to Romero and the team, who see this season as the chance to fulfill Big Al's wish.
For Romero, the path from volleyball apprentice to savant has been painful at times, but through the attention and patience of Kosty, Shibuya and Roderigues, that ability has been refined and fine-tuned.
When Evan was freshman, Kosty made him arrive a half-hour early each day to throw a football. Romero had a loopy three-quarter arm swing and Kosty had noticed that top NFL quarterbacks passed with a short, explosive arm swing. That, and a high-release point, is what Kosty wanted Romero to develop.
A better technique and aggressive play were pounded into Romero through what Shibuya calls a "crash course" in volleyball skills. For two years, the Stanford coaches did not teach Romero how to tip.
"You can't be a timid opposite," Kosty told him.
Only in the past two years has Romero added change of pace, and wider hitting range to his game, as well as improved blocking and digging, and deciphering the intentions of opponents through their body positioning.
"To learn to be a volleyball player just takes a lot of time," Kosty said. "And if he makes the decision to continue playing, he's going to get better and better."
That would be fine with Romero, but he offers no hint of what his future holds. Graduate school? Pro volleyball? A return to Miami?
But one thing is for sure: Kosty found the right kid indeed.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics