The early career of men's volleyball's senior opposite Scott Birdwell wasn't one that included much playing time. In fact, he was cut from his seventh-grade volleyball team.
"I think that lit a fire under him," fellow captain and senior outside Jeff Cooper said.
Cooper, who has played volleyball with Birdwell since the ninth grade, has watched Birdwell evolve from bench regular into a 1997 Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association first-team selection.
"He is a hard worker and he wants to win badly – it just rubs off on everybody else," Cooper added.
Birdwell's leadership helped the Tigers compile a impressive 24-2 record last year and wind up 15th in the country, one match away from the NCAA Final Four.
He led the nationally ranked Tigers in kills with 478 over 88 games, or 5.43 kills per game.
Sophomore setter Jason Morrow spent last year setting up Birdwell's kills and understands how important Birdwell is to the team.
"He is our go-to guy," Morrow said. "It is nice to have a guy to want the ball and score points for us."
Birdwell graciously attributes much of his success at Princeton to Morrow and his other great setters over the past four years.
"I owe a lot of my success to those guys," Birdwell said. "But if it ever comes down to me, I am the rock that will put the ball away when we need the point."
Grabbing the spotlight
The confidence Birdwell demonstrates is an important trait he has developed over his lengthy volleyball career. During his high school career, Birdwell's role was reduced to one behind standout Cooper.
"Throughout high school, I was in Jeff's shadow," Birdwell said. "I constantly tried to escape it both mentally and physically."
Birdwell, who graduated from Brentwood School in Los Angeles, played with another close friend, his twin brother Chris. Chris is currently the senior captain of UC-Berkeley's club volleyball team.
Last year the Tigers faced Chris' Golden Bears and defeated them in straight sets in a match Scott called "the most fulfilling game I have ever played in a structured setting."
His brother and Cooper have helped Birdwell develop an independence and work ethic that has certainly followed him to Prince-ton.
"I'm not relying on a coach to make me a better player," Birdwell said. "If something goes wrong, we have been able to grow as individuals."
That growth certainly came after a 3-1 loss to East Coast powerhouse Penn State in last year's EIVA Conference finals. It was the second straight year that the Nittany Lions ended the Tigers' season in the league finals.
But Penn State's loss of two All-Americans and the emergence of Princeton freshman outside Steve Cooper have given head coach Glenn Nelson and the rest of the team an optimistic perspective that the 1998 season will include a berth in the NCAA Championships in Hawaii.
"This is our most feasible year to make it to the Final Four," Birdwell said. "We are not where I want to be until we are in Hawaii."