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Redshirt freshman overcomes setbacks, earns spot as starter

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Callaway block attempt

Penn State middle hitter Matt Callaway (17) attempts to block the kill shot of IPFW middle blocker Ramon Burgos (16) during their matchup in the South Gym on Friday night, January 17, 2014. The Nittany Lions defeated the Mastadons, 3-0.

Penn State’s newest starter, Matt Callaway, had everything coach Mark Pavlik was looking for when he was recruited. But since he signed with Penn State, his journey into a starting position has not been easy.

The 6-foot-7 middle hitter had what Pavlik described as “talent you can’t teach,” referring to Callaway’s ideal body type for the sport. Even though he started playing volleyball in his freshman year at Wheaton Warrenville South in Wheaton, Ill., he received numerous high school and club volleyball honors in just four years of playing time.

Callaway came to Penn State and redshirted his first year to give him time to build his strength. However, in the fall of 2012, Callaway contracted mononucleosis and couldn’t practice for the first semester of his redshirt season.

“He came down with the worst case of mononucleosis I’ve ever had on this team,” Pavlik said.

After recovering from mono, Callaway tore a ligament in his wrist in the spring, which limited his practice for four weeks in the spring.

“It was definitely rough coming to a place like Penn State where there are such high expectations to do well…so when I got sick I was pretty disappointed,” Callaway said. “Coming into this year, after having all of that happen last year I just want to put it behind me, and to be healthy for the majority [of this season.]”

Callaway said keeping up his strength and motivation was tough during his initial season, but he turned to veteran middle hitter Aaron Russell for guidance.

“I think one of the main things was just him staying positive,” Russell said. “Last year…he got down on himself pretty easily. I had to keep on reminding him to stay positive, that he’s going to get better, and play for us and be big for us next year. He’s definitely grown a lot with the experience, and he’s been doing more than what we want from him.”

In the offseason, Callaway worked on building his strength by training with his friend, Tom Jaeschke, last summer in Wheaton, Ill.

Jaeschke is an outside hitter at Loyola-Chicago, and Callaway said competing with him was a major factor in his speedy recovery.

“We have always been butting heads and trying to make each other better,” Callaway said. “He started last year, and I was redshirted, so I’ve been chugging and chugging trying to get a starting spot here.”

“I’ve always been just incredibly competitive, I’ve always wanted to be better than people around me and to make the people around me better. Also just to make my family proud.”

Pavlik’s decision to start Callaway instead of junior middle hitter Kyle Gregan on Jan. 9 against UCLA came down to Callaway’s competitive nature.

“The idea that he came in and pushed Kyle [Gregan] and pushed [middle hitter Matt] Seifert, and those guys were pushing back,” Pavlik said. “He added to our competitiveness in our gym, that’s really what swayed back in his direction.”

In Penn State’s five matches with Callaway as a starting middle hitter, he has contributed across the board. He has a .390 hitting percentage and leads the team in block assists and total blocks. Callaway has two solo blocks, just one fewer than Russell, who leads the team with three.

Even though Callaway is just beginning his time on the Penn State volleyball team, Pavlik has high hopes for his future as a leader on the court.

“I just think Matt has a great desire to be very, very good,” Pavlik said. “I think the sky is the limit for Matt Callaway.”

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Lindsey Smith can be reached at or (814) 865-1828. Follow her on Twitter at @SuperSquints.

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