The UCLA men’s volleyball team has an odd obsession with mustaches. Some players grow theirs thick, while others try to grow theirs long. A few dare for both, but one mustache stands out apart from the rest.
Redshirt senior outside hitter Jeremy Casebeer’s mustache is a normal light brown color on one half, but the other is marked by an out-of-place whitened hue.
While snowboarding in his junior year, Casebeer was sunburned severely and the burn changed the skin pigmentation on part of the right side of his face. That part of his face, including the hair, is now lighter. Coincidentally, the color change occurs right down the middle of his mustache.
His snowboarding accident left its mark, but another unfortunate event made an even larger impact.
As he was about to begin his sophomore volleyball season, Casebeer was struck by tragedy in the preseason SAC Tournament.
“I was playing libero and (a) total freak accident (happened). I was going to dig a ball, and I went to my right. And as I turned, my foot and knee stayed and the rest of my body went so the cartilage of my knee just ripped,” Casebeer said.
In a sport based on jumping ability, power and flexibility, knee injuries can spell serious implications for his playing career.
“Hang in there. You’ll be back,” Jeremy’s father, Chris Casebeer, told him following the injury. “I had a similar injury and so I knew that his career was not going to end. If he wanted to, he would be back and he would play.”
Fortunately for Casebeer, it wasn’t a potential career-ending ACL/MCL tear. It was instead a torn meniscus that would need surgery but wouldn’t require the same recuperation time that would come with an ACL tear.
After surgery, a long road of recovery lay ahead of him, but Casebeer never thought about anything except returning.
“Coming to UCLA, my goal was to win a national championship,” Casebeer said. “That was the sole motivation right there … to get back healthy, contribute to the program and contribute in any way possible.”
After three weeks of crutches, four months of extensive rehab every day and countless exercises to rebuild muscle, Casebeer returned in time for the start of his junior year. But his string of unlucky accidents returned with him.
In a late season matchup against Long Beach State, Casebeer came off a block at the net. He turned his body away from the net, but the same knee stayed put.
Casebeer had torn his meniscus again, but this time he wasn’t as fortunate. The surgery to repair the tear removed 60 percent of his knee’s cartilage.
“(He was) devastated. He knew right away what happened. He didn’t really need to go to the doctor to know,” his roommate and teammate Weston Dunlap said. “He was really, really upset about it because he put so much time and effort into being out there.”
With two knee surgeries in two years and risk of further damage, the thought of calling it a career arose. The injuries left bigger scars on his psyche than on his knee, but the remaining prospect of competing for a national championship was too much. He had to come back.
“For a while, I wasn’t really sure of myself ““ you’re always doubting it (the injury). You don’t really know. Especially weight training too, you don’t really know how far you can push it,” Casebeer said. “It’s always in the back of your mind.”
With no established player at one of the outsider hitter positions, coach Al Scates toyed with his lineup. Players, including Casebeer, were continuously rotated in and out.
Despite having more experience and less seasons of eligibility, Casebeer remained silent and dedicated during his time on the sidelines.
“You’ll get your chance, and be ready when it comes,” his dad told him. “You never know when you’re on the bench when the coach is going to say, “˜Jeremy you’re in!’”
Casebeer, along with some teammates, started practicing in the gym in September, something that hadn’t occurred that early since he’d been at UCLA. He worked tirelessly on the court and in the weight room.
One man who took notice was his coach.
“His defense improved tremendously. He was working real hard to get deep and run balls down and I hadn’t seen that before,” Scates said. “Everything about his game has improved. There’s not one thing (that hasn’t improved). He’s passing, digging and scoring well on his serves.”
Consequently, Casebeer’s chance came at the UCSB/asics Invitational this past January to start the season.
Facing two top-15 teams including No. 2 UC Irvine and the defending national champion, Ohio State, he averaged 2.8 kills per set to lead all UCLA outside hitters.
Casebeer had earned his place in the starting lineup.
In his first season as a full-time starter, he currently leads the team in kills and kills per set.
“In previous years, he’s had a lot of peaks and valleys where he’s playing real well one night, not so well the next night,” Scates said. “This year he’s been our most consistent player.”
With Casebeer’s emergence, opposing teams must now contend with four players who can put up double-digit kills on any given night. Their defenses are forced to stray from sending double and triple teams because UCLA no longer has a liable hitter on the court.
While Casebeer’s improvement and increase in playing time have been major milestones, statistics were never his main focus.
“(My goal is) just to win a title. Period,” he said.
That drive and dedication looks like it may be the missing piece in UCLA’s quest for an NCAA Championship. And how suiting that it comes from a man with half a mustache.