Former University of Hawaii middle blocker Taylor Averill is having a pretty solid year. He made the playoffs of Italy’s Serie A at the conclusion of the 2017-18 professional season with his Power Volley Milano team and then hit the road with the U.S. Men’s National Team for Volleyball Nations League and World Championships.
Leaving the national team in September after scoring more roster spots and playing time than ever before and with two bronze medals in his suitcase, Averill joined his new professional team Chaumont 52, the reigning champion of France’s Ligue A.
For the 2018-19 season, Chaumont secured a bid into the prestigious CEV Champions League tournament, but the French squad had to start in the first round of the qualifier and get past three opponents before even making it to the group stage, aka the fourth round or pool play.
Check, check, and check. And not only that, Averill and his team—which includes fellow American Michael Saeta, a UC Irvine grad—went 4-2 in pool and earned one of eight quarterfinal spots.
FloVolleyball caught up with Averill just a couple days before Chaumont gets ready to face the reigning Italian league champion Perugia in Champions League quarters.
FloVolleyball: What’s your team like this year?
Taylor Averill: We’ve got a mix of like half French guys, we’ve got a couple Canadians, another American. As an American having other English-speakers is fun, and I like the other other guys we have here. Blair Bann the Canadian guy is a super cool dude and the other American here [Michael Saeta] is a nice guy, we have a good relationship. So that’s awesome and off the court our team has a good relationship and that makes it fun when you’re in a small town like this.
Flo: What’s different about this league or team or living situation?
TA: The Italian league and the French league are definitely different. I would say the Italian league is definitely a step up compared to the French league. French league is still good top to bottom, which is nice, the No. 1 team can lose to the bottom team and vice versa, so you kinda always got to be on and the competition’s good, so that’s great to be in, and Italy was similar. I think the top four teams in Italy are pretty solid, but they can also lose to some of the other guys and the Italian league, that’s where the best players in the world are playing, so that’s obviously different.
My team last year in Milan [Power Volley Milano] was amazing, that was something really special to be a part of with Andrea Giani, the coach, and the organization there and the team we had, that was the first time it was like everything was perfect. The team was amazing. The teammates were unbelievable—I have some friends who I still talk to now from that team, Matteo Piano, Cebulj, Nimir, some other guys other there who I still consider really close friends. So that was really cool to be a part of for sure.
It’s just different. The food’s, I guess, similar. Italian food, obviously nothing beats Italian food, but the French got the wine figured out and that cheese game, that baguette game...
Flo: What do you like better France or Italy?
TA: Personally, I like Italy better. But it’s difficult because I can speak decent Italian. I was there for three years, so knowing the language changes everything. I don’t know any French, sadly, so it’s like you don’t even exist out here because you can’t really get to know people if you don’t know their main language. In Chaumont, not a lot of people speak English. So once you really learn the language, I think it changes everything. I would say for that, Italy was a good experience. And the food—it’s amazing. Italy is amazing.
Flo: What’s your coach at Chaumont like?
TA: My coach is Silvano Prandi, he is a legend who has been in volleyball for 1,000 years. He’s an Italian guy and I get to speak Italian with him so I feel like I get to understand him a little bit better, which is really nice. But otherwise he’s got his way of doing things, and I think he does a really good job at asking how his players are doing and it’s kind of like once volleyball is over, if we lose or something happens, or we win or whatever, it’s just like, ‘Let’s enjoy the moment.’ Once it’s over we move on to the next one, and I think that’s important.
Flo: Do you feel pressure as the reigning champs of the French league to win it again?
TA: I’ve got to be honest, every year is different, every year they sign a bunch of new people. Of guys who started last year on this team in Chaumont, I don’t think there’s any [who returned]. We have like a completely new team this year. So no, there's no pressure in that way at all.
Flo: Is this your first time competing in Champions League?
TA: This is my first time competing in Champions League, and it’s been fun. I think we got a really nice pool, at least in terms of opportunity for us to really compete and win. Beating Ljubljana and beating Friedrichshafen both twice was big and even against Saint Petersburg, I thought we had two really nice matches. Unfortunately, lost both in five, but I think as a team we’ve competed really well in Champions League.
Flo: Would you consider your team an underdog in the Champions League?
TA: Yeah definitely. We earned the right to go to the quarterfinals based on the pools and how it was and I think we’ve played really well, like I said before in Champions League, and yeah, we’re playing Perugia, they’re one of the best teams in the world. This is a great opportunity for everyone.
Flo: What’s been the biggest highlight of Champions League so far?
TA: I’m going to give you two. The first time we played Friedrichshafen, that was one of the best matches we’ve ever had just as a team. Every single player played amazing and that’s rare I think to see where it’s just like everyone was on their best game and we just had a blast and destroyed them in three. That doesn’t happen all the time so to see that kind of match and to be a part of that was really cool.
And then I think the first match against Saint Petersburg, actually, because it was our first like real Champions League match of the pool and they’re a really good team and we played them at their house in Russia and we lost in five but had opportunities to win. I think after that it was kind of like, ‘Oh wow, we can compete with the best.’ That really opened the eyes and opened the doors for competing in Champions League from there on out so I think that was a good lesson for us.
Flo: You’ve led the team in points a number of times — what do you think is leading to your individual success with this team?
TA: Well first, I have an American setter who loves setting me the ball and that works to my strength and I’m super grateful for that, and we have [Canadian libero] Blair Bann who passes nails pretty much constantly. He’s an amazing receiver and I think our outsides are also really good and have also improved a lot. So when our reception’s really good, it allows me to attack the ball more and score more.
Flo: What do you know about your Champions League quarterfinal opponent?
TA: I know a lot about them. I played against them all three years in Italy. They’re an all-star team with all-star players from all around the world and yeah, they’re... What’s there to say about one of the best teams in the world? I mean it’s an honor to get to be a part of it where we’re at and I think it’s a really good opportunity for guys to see where they stand and to see how we can compete against arguably one of the best teams in the world right now.
Flo: What’s life in your new city like?
TA: Again, it’s difficult because I don’t speak French. I feel like there’s a small-town vibe going on and even though I don’t speak French, I still feel that, you know when you’re walking on the streets and people recognize you and we’re on like the local bus here so it’s a really cool small-town vibe, which for me is completely new. But that’s a cool thing to do and to feel like you’re competing and you have the whole city to back you up. It’s really cool. Otherwise it’s just a small town. Not a ton going on but people still find a lot of happiness in the small things out here... Like baguettes! So that’s amazing.
Flo: Who are the biggest personalities on the team?
TA: Blair Bann for sure. He’s a pot-stirrer, 100 percent. The kid likes to rally and have a good time. And Kevin Rodriguez is also very similar. Kind of guys who round out the team and I think are our real glue for good and bads days and wins and losses or kind of keeping things more even keel and reminding everyone that life’s a good time too and we should be enjoying that. They just seem to have a really good balance between not letting their emotions get the best of them. They show up every day happy kind of regardless and that’s real contagious so I feel it’s always nice to be surrounded by players like them.
Flo: What was the summer with the national team like?
TA: It was a blast. I love our team. I love a lot of the guys on our team. I always have a super good time playing with our national team and traveling and this was the first time I got to travel on more road trips and actually play in matches and so for me that was new and exciting and I can’t wait to continue to try to do that and help out the program as much as possible.
Also, when we’re back home we get to surf and play volleyball and be surrounded by good people and good guys and the group dynamic with John Speraw and Brian Thornton and Rob Neilson and the coaching staff we have there.
It’s a real honor to be a part of a really progressive program that is always looking for new ways to improve and thinking outside the box and to be a part of this type of movement in volleyball, something that feels new and fresh. The coaching staff, like I said before, and also even with the way we weight train and our program there with Tim Pelot and just a lot of guys behind the scenes—Aaron Brock, our trainer who is just always thinking of new ideas and new ways to keep guys healthy and fresh and have them looking at life the same way. It’s a real cool experience. I absolutely love it there.