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The Age of Excellence: On the map

2003’s big story: Tony Ker

Posted: December 22, 2009 10:57 p.m.
Updated: December 23, 2009 4:30 a.m.

Valencia High graduate Tony Ker shows the 2003 and 2004 CIF rings he won as a member of the Vikings volleyball team last Friday at Valencia High's gymnasium. Behind him is his retired number.

 

Listening to Tony Ker reflect on his volleyball career — one marked by two CIF titles and his number being retired by Valencia High — you get the feeling that it could have gone another direction.

He was into baseball, basketball and football.

In fact, Ker thought he was going to get to college because of basketball.

But when he was 13 years old, his father, Walt, sat him down.

Walt started the volleyball program at Cal State Northridge and led the Matadors to three NCAA Division II titles. He would also later become the head volleyball coach at Valencia.

“This was a huge, long talk,” Tony recalls. “He knew I wanted to play college sports. He told me, ‘Tony, you’ve got to understand that you’re not going to be a whole lot bigger.”

Then the conversation turned into an offer.

Though Tony didn’t play tennis, Walt thought he would make a great player in the sport because of his athleticism and superb hand-eye coordination. He said he would enroll Tony in a tennis camp/high school in Florida if he wanted to go that route.

Tony said he wanted to stay home, be with friends and experience life where he grew up.

For Valencia High, things might have been a lot different had he left.

Ker, an outside hitter for the Vikings, played in four CIF title games in his four-year career.

He helped lead the Vikings to the school’s first-ever team CIF title, a 3-0 victory over Ventura on May 31, 2003, in the CIF-Southern Section Division II boys volleyball title game.

“There was no question, he was the core of the team,” says then and current Valencia head coach Mark Knudsen. “He helped put Valencia volleyball on the map.”

Walt ran the Valencia program in 2002 and was an assistant on the 2001 team. Knudsen took over starting the 2003 season and has guided the Vikings to four CIF titles — 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008. The 2008 team was selected as national champions.

But it was Walt who lit the spark — not only for the program, but for Tony.

Walt would take Tony to Redondo Beach to play for a club volleyball team.

During the long drive, Tony says he would bond with his father and simply through absorption of the knowledge, his game elevated.

Tony began getting his friends involved in volleyball and soon the Vikings were made up of Tony Ker and most of his best friends.

“I didn’t start playing competitively until my freshman year,” says Tony’s teammate and friend Davey Rowley. “(Tony’s) dad would get his brothers out at the end of the cul de sac (and play volleyball).”

Rowley, now 23 and working as an aerospace engineer in Mission Beach, used to live across the street from the Kers. He would follow Tony and start playing volleyball with the family and the Valencia team.

As more players followed, Valencia built itself into a volleyball powerhouse.

The team was swept in the 2002 Division I title game by Esperanza, but the table was set for the 2003 run with that team.

Brian Edwards, a senior setter on the 2002 team, gave that squad a sense of calm.

Players would go to his house and play ping pong. That game would eventually morph into a game the team invented called “volleypong” — a mix of volleyball and ping pong.

Edwards eventually rented a limousine for the team to ride home in after the 2002 CIF title match.

The Vikings, despite the loss, still rode home in the limo.

Their carefree approach lived on into 2003, even with the arrival of the new head coach.

“Mark, the first day he showed up to the gym, we were a bunch of goofballs, he walks in, his shirt tucked into his shorts, shorts that were above his belly button. Sneakers super tight. Socks up to his knees. Cargo shorts. We’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way this guy will be our coach,’” Ker remembers. But Knudsen came in with great credentials.

He won four NCAA titles as an assistant coach at UCLA and was a former player for the Bruins.

More importantly, he gelled with the team instantly.

He would mix in and practice with his players. He would strategize and scout and prepare the Vikings for whatever might happen.

Knudsen says one thing he did early on was put faith in one particular player — senior Alex McEwan.

Though that Vikings had five seniors on that team and a wealth of talent, Knudsen says he identified a quality in McEwan that the rest of the team fed off — his personality.

“He had the demeanor that if he screwed around, (the team) screwed around. If he focused, they focused. If I could get him to believe (in how I coached), the rest of the team would respond to that,” Knudsen says.

The team responded, blowing through the Foothill League and through the playoffs and into the Division II title game.

It wasn’t even close.

Valencia breezed by Ventura 15-2, 15-3, 15-7 in Cypress.

Tony completed his career at Valencia in 2004 with a 3-0 win over Santa Barbara in the Division II title game.

His No. 2 was retired at the team’s season-ending banquet.

It’s one of four retired numbers at Valencia High — along with football star Manuel White and softball stars Jordan Taylor and Jessica Spigner.

His brothers Kevin and Jamey would also win CIF titles at Valencia and follow him to UCLA.

In the years since high school, Tony, now 23, has traveled in many directions.

At UCLA, he switched to libero where he became the NCAA’s career digs leader. He was a three-time NCAA Defensive Player of the Year and won a national title in 2006.

After college, Ker played professionally in Kuwait.

The league was made up of nine teams. There were only two Americans and only a handful of people spoke English.

Tony lived 55 miles from the Iraqi border.

“It was very boring, but it was a phenomenal life experience,” Tony says. “It was awesome to see another culture.”

For a period, Tony was training with the U.S. National Team with his hopes set on one day playing in the Olympics.

Recently, Tony realized that he would have a long wait to take over for current USA libero Rich Lambourne.

He says he wants to move on with his life.

“I kind of sort of decided, I’m done with my indoor career for now,” he says.

He has turned his attention to coaching.

It’s an interesting story.

John Price is the women’s head volleyball coach at Cal State Bakersfield.

Price played volleyball at Cal State Northridge for Walt Ker.

In 1986, Walt’s wife gave birth to Tony.

Because of the pregnancy, Walt, who coached both the men and women at CSUN, gave up the men’s job around that time.

Price took over for Walt.

Last year, Price extended an offer to Tony to come coach with him at Cal State Bakersfield where he has been the last 12 years.

Tony helped coached the women’s team in 2009 and is moving to Bakersfield within the next month to coach again in 2010.

 

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