Saturday, on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, the EIVA men’s volleyball conference will crown a new champion.
But as the coaches and players of today battle on the court, the EIVA will also take the opportunity to honor three individuals who played a major role in past EIVA seasons.
Ron Larsen, Tarik Rodgers, and Doug Emich make up the EIVA Hall of Fame Class of 2019. That Princeton ended up winning the regular season championship for the first time in the history of the program and therefore earning the right to host the playoffs means that these three accomplished men will return to the state where they all played or coached during their stint competing in the EIVA.
Tarik Rodgers (NJIT, 1992-1995)
When Rodgers played middle blocker for NJIT from 1992 to 1995, he ranked as one of the top hitters and blockers in the country. With his 46-inch vertical, Rodgers led his team to at least 19 victories in each of his four seasons, in addition to four Independent Athletic Conference championships. In 1995, he was even named the Most Valuable Player of the EIVA Division III championship and the Asics Small College Player of the Year.
It is for those accomplishments that Rodgers will be enshrined in the EIVA’s eighth Hall of Fame class. But Rodgers, a precocious and driven student who earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from NJIT, didn’t pursue professional volleyball. He never played on the national team.
And yet, volleyball has had an oversized impact on his life, something he’s had the opportunity to reflect on since the hall of fame announcement, which inspired teammates and opponents from over the years to reach out and congratulate him.
In a phone interview the week before the EIVA Hall of Fame ceremony, Rodgers recalled one moment in particular that shaped him permanently. NJIT was playing Juniata, another decorated DIII program in a high stakes postseason game. Despite already having established himself as one of the top players on the East Coast, Rodgers broke under pressure.
“I kind of cracked and I was whiffing balls, and it was the pressure had gotten to me,” Rodgers said. “I knew I was not going to go down like that and I was never going to ever crack under pressure again.
“That was actually one of the most formidable moments for again shaping me in my volleyball career, as well as my life. I would never crack under pressure again. Somebody else could beat me, but I’m not going to beat myself.”
A few years after college, when he decided to apply to business school, the high-achieving Rodgers refused to go anywhere but a top 20 program. But in the first round of applications, he didn’t get in.
Undeterred, he applied again the next year, landing a spot in Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
“I went to raise my GMAT scores, I did not lower my expectations and then I got to what ended up being the No. 1 business school in the nation while I was there,” Rodgers said. “I’m not going to defeat myself, I’m not going to lower my expectations. I’m not going to crack and I’m going to do what is necessary in order to win and achieve.”
After graduating with is MBA, Rodgers has explored a number of different professional pursuits, launching a few dermatology practices with his then-wife, managing solar energy efficiency programs for a utility company, and even working on an entrepreneurial venture that landed him on Shark Tank in 2016.
Over the years, as he changed jobs and cities, volleyball remained a big part of his life. Right after college, through connections made with some Haitian teammates at NJIT, he joined the legendary high-level adult club team Creole, and he playing with that team on and off up until the 2018 USA Volleyball Open Nationals.
Ron Larsen (Rutgers-Newark head coach, 1993-'99)
Ron Larsen didn’t pick up volleyball until after returning from serving with the Marine Corp in Vietnam. And yet, when he enrolled at BYU and joined the men’s club team there, he found himself surrounded by some of the best athletes in the sport.
Pedro “Pete” Velasco and Jon Stanley, both now members of the International Volleyball Hall of Fame, were in Provo pursuing advanced degrees and served as player/coaches on the team. Legendary coach Carl McGown, who would later become the founding head coach of the BYU men’s varsity program, also worked with the team.
“I learned how to set from Pedro and I learned how to be a coach from Carl and learned a little bit about middle blocking and hitting quick from Jon,” Larsen said. “I guess I had to be a volleyball coach. I had all this great training.”
When Larsen told McGown his plan to make coaching volleyball his career, McGown didn’t take him seriously. And sure, in the beginning, the going was tough. Although he landed a coaching job at what was then Cal State Hayward (now known as CSU East Bay), and then started the program at Saint Mary’s College, the tiny salaries for those gigs forced Larsen pick up other work on the side. He worked for a company that inspected building for fire insurance purposes. Then, he worked in landscape architecture. While coaching the men’s club team at Cal, he also worked in the physical education department, teaching classes in badminton, tennis, weightlifting, and, of course, volleyball.
His first “real job” in volleyball came in 1993, when he was hired to coach both the men’s and women’s varsity teams at Rutgers-Newark.
Larsen, who had never lived further east than Provo, Utah, packed up his car and made the 3,000-mile journey to Newark.
“I’ve always felt like people came and they settled on the East Coast first, and those that were adventuresome moved out West. So I’ve always kind of felt people who lived in California and out in the West were brought up differently and that they were more adventuresome in some ways,” Larsen said. “So for me it was like, ‘OK, I have never lived on the East Coast. This might be kind of fun. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just leave and I’ll come back.’”
It seems fair to say it worked out. Larsen led the Rutgers-Newark men to a 103-88 record in his seven seasons with the team and a 122-96 mark with the women. He also served as EIVA commissioner from 1994 to 1999.
Larsen did eventually end up returning to the West Coast to accept the head coaching position with the men’s team at UC San Diego in 2000. Since then, he’s coached the UC Riverside women and served on the U.S. Men’s National Team coach staff at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
Throughout his successful coaching career, Larsen always went to his former club coach and now trusted friend Carl McGown for advice.
One lesson he learned from McGown, who passed away in 2016, was to take the time to study and read and keep evolving and learning.
“An example would be swing blocking,” Larsen said. “When I first was with Carl, we were talking about it and he’d be saying, that’s the stupidest thing ever, you know. And then three years later, he’s teaching swing blocking, and I’d walk up to him and I’d say, ‘Carl, I thought that was stupid.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that was me who was stupid.’”
Doug Emich (Rutgers-Newark, 1978-'79)
A high school swimmer, Doug Emich starting playing volleyball just for fun while he was enrolled in trade school and pursuing a career in cooking.
But standing 6-6, Emich quickly caught the eye of a number of influential men in the volleyball world. First, George Vasigonov—the founder of the New York Volleyball Club who recruited Emich away from the club team he was playing for in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, and convinced him to move to New York City. Then, Taras Hunczak, a professor, historican, and head coach of the Rutgers-Newark men’s volleyball team, which with its roster stacked with talented players of Ukrainian descent had already become an East Coast power.
Hunczak invited Emich to enroll at Rutgers and join the team. Emich spent just two seasons with the Scarlet Raiders before catching the eye of yet another top volleyball coach, Doug Beal, then head coach of the men’s national team who invited Emich to come train in Colorado Springs. In both of Emich’s collegiate seasons, Rutgers-Newark advanced to the national semifinals, where they faced West Coast teams featuring legends of the sport, who would later become Emich’s teammates in the national team gym: Karch Kiraly, Sinjin Smith, Pat Powers, Dusty Dvorak, and Steve Timmons.
Emich spent eight months with the national team leading up to the 1980 Olympics, which the U.S. eventually boycotted.
“After the boycott, in 1980, I should have went right back to Rutgers, and I didn’t,” Emich said. “I moved to the Jersey Shore in Belmar, New Jersey, and I’m kind of glad I did that. I met my wife there.”
He also discovered beach volleyball on the Jersey Shore through a man named Mark Borgia.
“I’m like coming out of Colorado, I know what I’m doing, I’m the biggest, I’m the best and all that other crap,” Emich recalled. “[Mike] takes me on the beach and says, ‘OK, let’s play some beach volleyball.’ I said, ‘OK, no big deal, give me anybody, doesn’t matter.’ So we played doubles on the beach and I think he beat me 15-2. And all he did was laugh because I mean I was just dying. I couldn’t jump off the sand. I had no timing or anything like that.”
And yet, he was hooked. Emich and Borgia founded the Jersey Shore Volleyball Association, which ran beach volleyball tournaments for about 20 years.
“Volleyball took me everywhere,” Emich said. “It really did. It was fantastic for me. Absolutely fantastic.”