In front of a packed home gym, the announcer burst out, “Kyle Caldwell!”
With the cheers and roars of the crowd behind him, senior setter Kyle Caldwell walked forward to greet his coach, Al Scates, with his parents alongside on senior day.
Two years ago, it seemed as if that walk might never become a reality, as a much tougher path lay ahead of him.
When Caldwell arrived at UCLA as a freshman, Scates’ expectations for him were high.
“My expectations were he would be a great setter because he had good hands and he was a good athlete and he had all the tools necessary to be a good setter,” Scates said.
Caldwell’s commitment to volleyball waned though, as his social life took center stage.
“My social life dominated more of everything else, including academics and athletics,” Caldwell said.
He was on academic probation regularly and eventually his low grades caught up with him.
Caldwell fell below the minimum GPA and unit requirement spring quarter of his sophomore year, and UCLA had no choice but to dismiss him.
Caldwell’s removal from school happened as the team was gearing up for the Mountain Sports Pacific Federation conference playoffs, but he could no longer play and contribute to his team.
“I think that’s what hurt me the most and made me really regret my decisions,” Caldwell said.
Those regrets only deepened as Caldwell’s flip-flopped role from teammate to spectator sunk in.
“It was really hard too because my roommates all play on the team. They come back from practice and I would still be there. They would be telling me stories, and they’re winning games and having fun,” Caldwell said.
“My passion is competing and sports and not being able to compete with my team and friends everyday was pretty brutal.”
The zigzag path that Caldwell’s life had undertaken threw him one more sharp curve though: A second chance.
“(Coach Scates) talked to me one day and said, “˜As long as you clean up your act and get back into school, there’s always a spot for you on this team,’” Caldwell said.
Caldwell understood the severity of his situation and this opportunity.
“Being kicked out of UCLA was something that was a real eye-opener for me. I’ve always been given everything my whole life. I’ve always been one of the best athletes naturally, whether it was basketball, volleyball or whatever sport it was.
“Being in a situation where I had to work to get my spot back, work to earn respect from people and work to prove to myself that I can do this; and so when I got that second chance, I took it,” Caldwell said.
To regain his academic eligibility for UCLA, Caldwell enrolled in UCLA Extension for the spring and summer quarters, where he had to achieve at least a B average.
Although Scates offered Caldwell a second chance, he was doubtful that Caldwell would be able to dig himself out of the hole he was in.
“I did not really expect Kyle to come back to the program … but he did. Once he came back, he was a changed person. He worked harder. He called the other players to practice when the coaches weren’t allowed to be there. He arranged times for everyone to meet in the SAC gym. He became a real leader on the team. … So he really turned his life around and he did this by himself,” Scates said.
When Caldwell returned to practice, his first day was unlike any other.
“It was like a kid in the candy store. Obviously practice isn’t the most fun for anyone. But being back with the team, wearing the UCLA clothing again, just being on the court listening to the coaches yell at (me) were fun things. Stuff I usually dread became fun again because I didn’t think it was going to happen but when it finally did, I was just so happy and so relieved,” Caldwell said.
His successful return and newfound maturity earned him the respect of his teammates, including redshirt senior quick hitter Weston Dunlap.
“It showed me that he had a whole lot of character and a lot of heart. It takes a lot for a person to realize that they’ve made a mistake and change exactly what needs to be changed and he did that,” Dunlap said.
Behind Caldwell at setter this past season, UCLA established themselves as arguably the most balanced offense in the nation.
His ability to not only set, but play an all-around game earned him first-team All-MPSF honors and American Volleyball Coaches Association National Player of the Year consideration.
“(Caldwell is) the most important (player). He’s the one we couldn’t replace on this team,” Scates said.
Despite the box score filling stats Caldwell produced, his greatest contribution to the team has been as being a leader.
For Scates, Caldwell was beginning to realize his potential.
“I developed into that leader (Scates) knew I could be and I led this team back into what he expected from this team in the past: hard work everyday, full commitment, 100 percent all the time. Back to the true UCLA way,” Caldwell said.
Although his UCLA volleyball career ended with Saturday night’s playoff loss, Caldwell will continue to play volleyball next year by going overseas.
The talented setter has larger plans ahead though.
Caldwell has the potential to be the U.S. men’s volleyball team’s next setter in 2016 Olympics, and he plans to pursue that opportunity.
“Working towards that goal is always something in my mind that keeps me going, keeps me driving everyday,” he said.
For Caldwell the path to the Olympics doesn’t seem much more challenging than the path he already took to get here.