Out of place.
That’s how some members of the bright blue-and-gold-clad UCLA men’s volleyball team felt, standing in the tall grass of a field in Pennsylvania.
But for senior Mitch Stahl, this is home.
The veteran hitter is one of the four Bruins on the team who hails from outside of the southwest region of the United States.
Stahl was born and raised in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and earned career records at Chambersburg Area Senior High School and while getting recruited by programs such as Loyola-Chicago, Pepperdine and UCLA.
“Being from the East Coast, there’s a lot of hype around California as far as the sport of volleyball,” Stahl said. “Most often, the best teams are from California, so there’s a huge draw for players that have the ability to go to those schools, to be recruited to those schools.”
When the Pennsylvanian took a trip out to the West Coast to look at schools, UCLA was the first place he visited.
Despite also attending a volleyball camp at Pepperdine during his trip, Stahl felt an immediate connection when he stepped on UCLA’s campus.
“People talk about this gut feeling that you get when you’re being recruited,” Stahl said. “I could just feel that and I was like, this is home. This is where I want to be.”
Stahl met coach John Speraw, who was still at UC Irvine at the time. The two hit it off, and Stahl saw a Speraw-UCLA combination as the most ideal situation possible.
“To have a guy who’s very personable, down to earth, and then to have a place like UCLA that’s beautiful, with unbelievable academics and the perfect location – it was literally the perfect storm.” Stahl said.
As the deadline to make a decision grew closer, Stahl prepared to commit to Loyola-Chicago. But he had one call to make. When he spoke with Speraw and learned the coach would be returning to his alma mater, Stahl was sold.
Now a fourth-year, the political science student initially struggled with the transition during his first year. Stahl found a completely different world in Westwood – no deer farms next door, no personal space and no way to clear his mind.
“Everything flipped upside down. You can’t just go out in a field or woods and quiet your mind,” Stahl said. “You can’t get up at 5 in the morning and go hunting. There’s a lot of differences, and it was really tough for me to work through that.”
When Stahl returned home for the first time after arriving in Southern California, he was able to once again sit in the trees or hike to the top of a mountain, recapturing the solitude he never found at UCLA.
Over the next few years, Stahl noticed differences between his life on the East Coast and his new life at UCLA. The individuals coming out of his hometown planned on becoming plumbers, mechanics or electricians. But Stahl noticed a different dynamic at UCLA.
“You come out here and everybody’s like ‘I’m going to be a lawyer, a doctor, an investment banker,'” Stahl said. “It’s just a different train of thought altogether.”
Stahl warmed up to the dynamics and personalities he found in California among his teammates, and adopted some of these philosophies into his own life. He said he has felt less stressed after observing how his friends tackle problems and face challenges in their lives on the West Coast.
“There’s not really a pressure to be someone you’re not; there’s no judgment as far as what you do on a daily basis. I think that was really helpful for me,” Stahl said. “It kind of let me settle into where I needed to be. So it’s been a really good change of pace that’s made me a better person.”
Over Stahl’s first few years of college, none of his teammates or friends in California were able to meet his family and friends from home. It felt like he was living two different lives between which he traveled back and forth.
That all changed last year when the men’s volleyball team traveled east to face Penn State. The team took advantage of the opportunity to pay a visit to Chambersburg and eat breakfast at Stahl’s home.
“A lot of people explain certain events in their lives as an out-of-body experience, where you’re not really there, you’re kind of just watching the whole thing unfold,” Stahl said. “That’s definitely how it was for me.”
It was the first time that Stahl’s coaches and teammates had seen Stahl’s hometown and – for many – the area of the country that he called home.
“If I had to go back and tell my high school self that John Speraw, (assistant coach) Brad Keller, (assistant coach) John Hawks and all these elite players from around the country were going to be at my house, I would’ve told you that it could never happen,” Stahl said.
Keller told Stahl and his parents that he now understood why Stahl was the way he was, after getting a firsthand glimpse of his environment growing up.
“To see a young man take a risk, come across the country and live in the big city, … you have to really want it,” Keller said. “And then to go back and actually see where he came from, where he grew up – it was a really neat perspective on how everyone lives differently across the country.”
When members of the team wanted to go out in the cold weather and walk around in the field right next to Stahl’s house, Stahl was intrigued at their excitement toward something so familiar to him.
“I was like, ‘Dude, it’s a field. It’s just where wild grass grows. It’s stupid, why are we going out there?’” Stahl said. “Everyone was just in awe of the openness … and you could just see. It clicked with some of them. They were just like, ‘I get it.’”
The Pennsylvanian said he now feels able to bring in some things from both Los Angeles and Chambersburg into his conversations.
“It opens up that door between those worlds,” Stahl said. “It’s this really cool flow of life and it has just been incredible.”
When Stahl arrived at UCLA, the first thing he noticed in practices was Speraw’s coaching method, which the hitter says is significantly different than anything he has ever experienced.
Regardless of whether it was baseball, volleyball or basketball, all of Stahl’s high school coaches shared the same type of style.
“It’s kind of military – it has to be crisp, it has to be perfect, it has to be what (your coaches) tell you to do,” Stahl said. “That’s where I came from.”
Thus, when his teammates didn’t have their shoes on and weren’t toe-to-toe on the baseline getting ready to warm up at 3:30 p.m. sharp for their team practices, Stahl was shocked.
He found it tough to adjust initially to Speraw’s coaching style after being raised as a perfectionist.
“Coming here, it was like, ‘Why aren’t you yelling at me ’cause I missed that serve, why aren’t you getting on my case, why aren’t you infuriated with me?’” Stahl said. “It took me a better part of a year or two to understand that that’s not how this program is. This program coaches to the talent they have, and they don’t try and fit players into their program.”
As a highly rated recruit and AVCA First-Team High School All American, Stahl stepped up to play a starting role during his first year on the squad. Faced with a huge transition into the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and world of collegiate volleyball, Stahl found a role model in former Bruin middle blocker Spencer Rowe.
“It was a big effort for (Stahl) to come into an already established team and go out there and start having success,” Rowe said. “I remember at the beginning of the year, if (Stahl) made a mistake, he would get in his head about it.”
Keller said that Stahl, like many other incoming players, struggled initially with learning patience and adapting to Speraw’s mentality.
“That’s typical of a lot of freshmen when they come in,” Keller said. “They want to be superheroes and take on the world. And this is a really tough place to play and go to school.”
Stahl started 15 matches as a freshman, including the last 11 of the season. He was selected to the All-MPSF Freshman team and ranked second on the team for aces with a season total of 21.
Three years later, Stahl currently holds the third spot on the all-time school block assist and total blocks lists, and has been critical to the offensive attack of the Bruins.
“One thing that I was really happy to see him improve on is playing with more and more joy,” Rowe said. “He’s doing a much better job of moving onto the next play, being savage and then having joy afterwards.”
Stahl cites Rowe as the biggest leader in his collegiate volleyball career, calling him a great influence on his first year.
“You just want to model yourself after him,” Stahl said. “When I think about being a leader on this team and what that looks like, often times I think back to what he did.”
Now a veteran on the team, Stahl has been playing a mentor-like role for another dynamic newcomer bursting onto the college volleyball scene: Daenan “Kofi” Gyimah.
“Ever since the first day I got here, (Stahl) has helped me,” Gyimah said. “He’ll take time out of practice … and come over and talk to me about blocking or something. Even if it’s after practice, he’ll come watch film with me and talk about the moves I make. I’m super thankful that he’s here to help me.”
Both are outsiders to California, with Gyimah hailing from eastern Canada – about a six-hour drive from Stahl’s house. Stahl now hopes to provide a leadership figure for younger players much like Rowe did for him, coming full circle in his final year at UCLA.
“I think (Stahl) has taken that and made his own brand on it,” Rowe said. “He’s leading this team in his own way, which I’m really happy to see, but it’s kind of rooted in our ideals as Bruins, which is just to have that work ethic and be a really good man on and off the court.”
Keller added that Stahl’s growth in maturity from his first to fourth year can’t be measured or described in words.
“Now he really understands the details of the process in order to get where he wants to go,” Keller said. “It’s been very impressive.”
Almost four years have gone by since Stahl left the grassy fields and deer farms for the beaches and big city. The senior considers coming to UCLA as the single greatest decision that he has made in his life.
“It’s made me a more complete person,” Stahl said. “Coming from a small town in rural Pennsylvania to a very large city that is the center of college athletics – it’s been the biggest blessing ever.”