The Final Stretch
The Daily Bruin tells the stories of different UCLA men’s volleyball players throughout the week as the team begins postseason play on Saturday.
Erin Ng / Daily Bruin senior staff
Sophomore setter Steve O’Dell (right) and senior outside hitter Robart Page’s (left) success in volleyball has increased the sport’s popularity in their hometown of Rochester, N.Y.
Steve O’Dell & Robart Page
BY CLAIRE FAHY
“On the East Coast, Rochester is probably one of the bigger areas for volleyball, but no one really respects it as a major sport.”
UCLA men’s volleyball senior outside hitter Robart Page and sophomore setter Steve O’Dell, who both hail from Rochester, strive to change the current status of men’s volleyball on their home coast. When Page was recruited to UCLA as the No. 1 high school recruit in the nation, it marked a seismic shift in perspective of East Coast volleyball.
Two years later, when O’Dell was making his own college decisions, he shadowed his former teammate and good friend on his official visit to UCLA. O’Dell loved the school, but credits Page with his ultimate decision to attend, seeing as they shared an “East Coast connection,” while the rest of the team mainly came from Southern California.
“Southern California – that’s where volleyball is king,” said Steve’s older brother John O’Dell, who coached both Page and O’Dell for the club Pace Bootlegger in Rochester. “(The East Coast has) a strong collegiate Division III conference and there’s a Division II national championship, but really for years and years, no one really broke through that West Coast barrier.”
It wasn’t always certain how O’Dell or Page would go on in the sport they loved, seeing as few people from Rochester play volleyball, let alone receive attention from scouts and major collegiate programs. Three of O’Dell’s four older brothers all played Division I volleyball, but at East Coast Schools.
“Having two kids from Rochester both starting (at UCLA), (volleyball has) absolutely now become a much more favored sport locally,” said William Page, Robart’s father. “There are a lot of really good athletes now that are really giving it a go, which I don’t think was happening before. Just the name UCLA – everybody knows it means volleyball, even out East – and the fact people can make that jump even from our area, we’re on the map.”
“I think when (Steve and I) both came out here actually it was kind of a big step I feel like for upstate New York to have two guys on the same roster in LA.”
Because of volleyball’s lack of popularity in Rochester, Page, like most other boys his age, was an avid basketball and football player in middle school. Unlike most other boys his age, Page stood at 6-foot-4.
When John O’Dell heard about “this monstrous middle schooler in town,” he picked up the phone and invited Page to play on his 14-under club team, where he coached his youngest brother, Steve. Page was extremely reluctant – he recalls his dad potentially bribing him to go to his first practice – but he agreed.
Eleven-year-old O’Dell made an immediate impression on 13-year-old Page when he saw the then-eighth grader walk into his volleyball practice eight years ago.
“I walk in, I don’t know who anybody is, and this first kid who comes is like, ‘Hey Rob! What’s up? I’m Steve!’” Page remembers. “He was just this little guy, running around, full confidence, just directing traffic at 11 years old.”
Rebeca Rankin / Daily Bruin
Robart Page and Steve O’Dell started out as “hometown homies” in Rochester, N.Y before they wound up both playing for the UCLA men’s volleyball team. Their friendship has grown both on and off the court throughout their college years as Bruins. Although Page will be graduating this spring, the athletes part ways with many memories they’ve shared over the last few years.
During their first stint as teammates, there were no signs foreshadowing the fact O’Dell and Page would go on to change the face of volleyball in Rochester. At the Can-Am tournament, a national competition just a week after Page attended his first practice, the newcomer was “thrown into the deep end” without any knowledge of rotations or game time experience. In one game, Page ran into his own setter a total of four times.
Despite Page’s struggles to find his footing, John O’Dell started and played him for the entire tournament – “a clutch move” according to Steve O’Dell.
“I knew that Robbie was going to be something special, so I just rolled with it and obviously Robbie switched over from football to volleyball … (in) high school and the rest is history.”
Both Page and O’Dell have come a long way since that tournament, literally. They moved about 3,000 miles to follow their passion and brought East Coast volleyball along with them.
“It’s true, like underdogs can make their dreams come true,” Page said. “No one expects you to come from Rochester, N.Y. to L.A. I think even people out here think volleyball sucks back there. Everyone looks down on it, like it doesn’t compare to West Coast volleyball.”
Page and O’Dell have not just proven that wrong, but completely broken the mold.
“People out here say, ‘You guys can’t play beach,’” O’Dell said, in reference to beach volleyball. “Now Robbie’s playing on the AVP (US professional beach volleyball) tour.”
Despite their successes on the opposite coast, Page and O’Dell – “hometown homies” as they call themselves – haven’t forgotten where they come from. Just this past summer, O’Dell ran two summer camps at his old high school.
“I think some of them may be inspired by what Robbie and I have done. They want to work hard and get better, and it’s cool to see the sport grow and to look at it from a new perspective,” O’Dell said. “Growing up, I would always look up to the guys on the West Coast and then I finally got here.”
Saturday’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinal against UC Santa Barbara may mark the final time Page and O’Dell take the court together on the opposite coast from where they first started out as teammates.
Since that first practice back in Rochester, both players have grown – Page is now 7 feet and O’Dell is 6-foot-5 – and volleyball has grown with them.