In just a few years, Northeastern's Devilbiss becomes volleyball phenomenon
A singular conversation in Dallas, Texas, altered the outlook that Reese Devilbiss had on his volleyball career.
It was at a national tournament and Devilbiss had just completed eighth grade. Northeastern boys' volleyball varsity coach Matt Wilson sat him down and the two discussed the sky-high limits to the youngster's game. While in Dallas, he would be playing in front of college scouts, a task intimidating enough for juniors and seniors in high school, let alone for someone who was just out of intermediate school.
The message between coach and player was a clear one: "Just play your best and do what you do and you can be pretty successful at that," Wilson told Devilbiss.
In essence, before Devilbiss even played one point as a high schooler for the Bobcats' varsity squad, talk about his playing career after high school was already in motion. That moment in his life perfectly sums up his volleyball career up to now — one that started late, but instantly exploded, much like the punishing kills he's become known for.
"That's when I knew and I was like: 'Oh, jeez, college,'" Devilbiss said. "I wasn't even planning about it at that point. I wasn't thinking, but that's when I knew that something was probably going to happen."
A late start: Basketball and soccer just didn't cut it for Devilbiss.
Growing up, those were his go-to sports, but he could never see himself truly delving into either one passionately. Volleyball quickly took over his life.
Devilbiss picked up the sport as a seventh grader and instantly fell in love with the game. It would've been hard not to, considering it came to him so naturally.
"When I started playing volleyball, I was hooked on it and just wanted to do that," he said. "And ever since then, I loved it and I just knew I wanted to play at the highest level."
From there, time would be the only thing that could hold him back.
By the time Devilbiss reached high school, the impact he had on the game was noticeable. As an outside hitter, he helped Northeastern continue the school's impressive history of PIAA state tournament success, leading it to a Class AA state title in 2013 as a freshman and then again in 2014, as a sophomore — the fourth and fifth state titles in program history.
Recruitment: Along the way, Wilson's prediction for Devilbiss' future came to fruition. It didn't take long for schools, both near and far, to show interest in Devilbiss as a sophomore.
Institutions such as Pepperdine University and UCLA sent him recruiting letters, but the distance played a major impact in him turning down two of the nation's premier programs. However, Ohio State and Penn State also made his final cut and each represented closer alternatives than the two West Coast schools. Ultimately, the decision was up to Devilbiss, but each school presented attractive options.
On one side, Happy Valley was closest to home and also represented a program that made the NCAA Tournament every year since 1999. The prestige of the Nittany Lions was tempting. To make matters more difficult for Devilbiss, his former teammate, Luke Braswell, was trying to convince Devilbiss to join him at PSU in a couple of years.
On paper, the Buckeyes seemed to have little hope of landing Devilbiss, being farther away from home and mired in mediocrity during his recruiting process. But, from early on, Wilson was the one person who constantly talked to Devilbiss about playing volleyball in college and it was Wilson who had direct ties to the OSU program. Wilson played for the Buckeyes from 1992-95 under longtime, and current, head coach Pete Hanson.
"My hand in (his recruitment) was just simply making him fully aware that it's about much more than just the sport of volleyball," Wilson said. "That, at the end of this, you're left with a degree and a quality degree, and fortunately for him, the schools that were pursuing him were all fantastic options, so he really didn't have a single bad option."
In the span of four years, Devilbiss went from volleyball beginner to being a top recruit for many premier programs. Fortunately, he had a strong inner circle to help him make the best decision for himself. Along with Wilson, his parents, Andy and Kristen, were by his side, guiding him through the whirlwind of emotions that come along with being a college recruit at only 16 years old.
"It's his decision," his father, Andy, said. "But, he's going to school to be a student and play volleyball along the way. And that's great, but the decision is up to him."
The 6-foot, 2-inch Devilbiss did what was best for him and followed his heart and verbally committed to Ohio State back in the fall. Unable to make it official by signing his letter of intent until next November, he'll sit on his verbal commitment for more than a year, feeling confident that he's making the right decision.
"When I went to Ohio State, I was just blown away by everything there," he said. "The academics are great, the campus is beautiful. It's just the type of place I want to live in for the next four years of my life."
A national phenom: Ken Shibuya was first introduced to Devilbiss last summer in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
As an associate head coach for Stanford University's men's volleyball team, Shibuya has seen his fair share of top-notch high school athletes flow through the Palo Alto campus. So when he first caught glimpse of Devilbiss playing in the High Performance Championships, he knew that the rising junior was something special.
The two met, spoke and, from there, the spark was lit. Devilbiss was invited out to Poway, California, over this past Christmas break to participate in the Boys' Youth Volleyball Camp. The five-day tryout pitted many of the nation's top high school players against each other for the right to be named to this upcoming summer's Boys' Youth National team.
Despite being one of the youngest players invited and competing against boys set to graduate in a few months and go off to star for their college programs, Devilbiss shined enough to be named to this summer's squad. When the team embarks to Argentina for the World Championships in a couple months, Devilbiss will be the youngest member on the team and the only one who won't go off to college next year, with his senior year still awaiting him.
"I was just like: 'USA? Whoa, that's pretty cool,'" he said. "It was a great feeling. I put in all this hard work and now I finally get to do something amazing and I was just ecstatic about it."
Establishing his legacy: As Devilbiss lounges around in his socks after the Bobcats' final practice the evening before their first round match of the state tournament early last week, he doesn't give off the perception of a teenager overcome with pressure. He's not thinking about his upcoming summer plans that will take him to South America or life after high school. That's all been put on hold.
At this moment, the sole focus for Devilbiss is on guiding his Northeastern squad through the PIAA state tournament as it strives to defend its back-to-back state crowns.
So far this season, the Bobcats have failed to drop a game, dispatching each and every opponent they've faced in the fewest games necessary. While the team is stacked with talent at every position, every time out, it knows that it'll get its opponent's very best. And that's when Devilbiss excels.
"He doesn't get rattled," Wilson said. "And to have a player of his caliber who really can't get shook, doesn't get rattled, that doesn't show up on a stat sheet, but it does show up in the win column because we know that he is that ballast and he keeps us upright."
But, even Devilbiss, a player full of both individual and team accolades, can find ways to continuously elevate his game.
On one particular night, during Northeastern's District 3 semifinal match against Cocalico, Devilbiss single-handedly took over a game. In an almost robotic fashion, Devilbiss steadily delivered hard, unreturnable serves to his opponents. In an awe-inspring manner, Devilbiss served out 13 straight points for the Bobcats, several of which were aces, for a new career high.
It's in moments such as that, when his brilliance takes over the moment, that you can't help but get caught up in what's taking place. But, it's also in moments such as that, when you would expect even Devilbiss to step back and admire his own astounding play, that he refuses to do that. To him, it's what he's expected to do, helping his team any way possible.
From the moment he first discussed playing volleyball in college as a 14 year old, to being touted as the best high school player in Pennsylvania, to committing to college as a junior and now preparing to represent his country, Devilbiss' playing career has been in fast forward.
Northeastern entered this year's state tournament as an overwhelming favorite to win its third straight championship, just another way in which Devilbiss' volleyball career is so atypical.
He's expected to lead the Bobcats, all while being the focus of every opposing team's game plan. Volleyball has become almost a full-time job for Devilbiss. Between all the practices, the travel and year-round matches, volleyball never ends for him.
Despite each serve, spike or block carrying more pressure than for most players his age, it's also where he's happiest, fully aware of how drastically his life changed the moment he put down the basketball and soccer ball and picked up a volleyball.
"I never thought it would amount to this much," he said in his stoic manner that is evident in how he approaches everything about his volleyball career.
"I'm just so grateful that we could all do this and it'll make high school the best time of my life."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com