Ohio State senior outside hitter Mike Stefani encouraged his high school friend, who at the time was a talented basketball player, to try volleyball.
Little did he know that the friend at Orchard Park High School in upstate New York would end up at Penn State, and become one of the team’s kill leaders.
Penn State senior opposite Tom Comfort is that friend, and despite going to two schools often considered rivals, the two high school teammates have remained friends throughout their college careers.
“He kind of got me started in volleyball,” Comfort, who started playing his freshman year of high school, said of Stefani. “I owe a lot to him.”
However, Comfort and Stefani won’t be the only set of high school teammates to face one another this weekend when No. 13 Penn State takes on No. 9 Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday.
Penn State redshirt sophomore Connor Curry and Ohio State senior Kyle Lawrence both attended Newport Harbor High School in California.
“We’ve been pretty good friends,” Curry said of Lawrence. “We were good friends all the way through high school. We’re still good friends. It’s fun to see him and play against him.”
While Curry, a Southern California native, said that he plays other athletes he knows from other schools, for Comfort and Stefani, the Penn State-Ohio State matchup is something rare for the two.
Stefani, who has struggled with an injury this year, has only played in 18 sets this season. Comfort has recorded 150 kills and averages 3.06 kills per set this year.
Comfort said he feels that even though most people portray the rivalry between the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes as a contentious one, the two have mutual respect for each other on the court.
“I would say that friendship outweighs rivals, so I don’t think it is awkward,” Stefani said. “It’s actually kind of nice whenever we go to Penn State. I get to talk to him. I don’t really get a chance to talk to him all that often at school.”
Lawrence, who is one of the Buckeyes’ setters, has recorded 28 assists this year. Curry, the Lions’ libero, has recorded 169 digs this year.
For Curry and Lawrence, the Buckeye said that the first time he stepped on the court against Curry, it was “cool.”
“I thought it was just like surreal experience someone that has been on my team in such a big game,” Lawrence, a setter, said. “I didn’t really feel awkward, but more I was like ‘this is really cool,’ stuck in the moment kind of thing.”
Southern California is one of the major hot beds for men’s volleyball. Five of the last seven national championship teams have come from the West Coast.
Also, both Penn State and Ohio State have several players from the area. Two California natives are on Penn State’s roster, and Ohio State has 11.
“They’ve played, on average, a little bit longer,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said of recruiting in California. “They got involved earlier. They are also on the beach. They have also touched the ball a little more than some of the Midwest and East people.”
On the East Coast, a major area for volleyball recruiting for Penn State is the upstate New York area, where Orchard Park is located. Olympian and Penn State alum Matt Anderson is from the Buffalo area. Pavlik said that several other members of team’s past are from that area.
Senior outside hitter Kyle Mars is from the Rochester area.
“Western New York has always been strong,” Pavlik said. “Winning programs are winning programs. It doesn’t matter whether you have a tan in February or not.”
Pavlik added that players from winning programs know what it takes to be successful.
When Comfort and Stefani were in high school, the two helped Orchard Park to a state championship and went undefeated.
Their coach, Walt Stefani — Mike’s father — said it was a special team. Comfort and Stefani were not the only Division I volleyball players on that roster. Princeton’s Pat Schwagler was also on the roster.
“That was an incredible team,” the elder Stefani said. “They were probably the top area recruits in the whole in the state at that time.”
Lawrence and Curry, who still call each other by their high school nicknames they gave to one another — Curry’s was Ed and Lawrence’s was Kyle — another, said playing with other Californian friends is a common occurrence.
Along with Curry and Lawrence, the Buckeyes’ Brennan Anderson and Danny Baker attended Corona del Mar, a rival high school of Newport Harbor.
“The whole volleyball community in Southern California is pretty tight,” Lawrence said. “So like me, Connor, a couple [USC] guys, UCLA and Irvine, our whole group is pretty tight.”
This weekend will be the third time that the Penn State and Ohio State play each other this year. Mike Stefani added that he likes it when the two schools get together.
“In Hawaii, we were shocked because we thought would play closer,” Mike said. “Then at Penn State, it kind of shocked them. I think that both teams have had a lot of preparation this week. I think that I feel like you are going to see a medium between the last two matches. I think it is going to be real close.”
Stefani’s father and Comfort’s former coach also enjoys it when the schools get together.
“I’m like a proud dad,” Walt Stefani said. “Sometimes, you sit there and say ‘well, boy, I helped those guys get out there.’ The awkwardness isn’t really there — except for that I do root for Ohio State when they do play against each other.”