By Walter Villa
He’s only 15, but T.J. DeFalco already is being hailed as a potential volleyball Olympian and drawing a comparison to one of the world’s greatest athletes.
And DeFalco, a home-schooled sophomore-to-be in Huntington Beach, Calif., recently got a chance to train with volleyball royalty -- Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh.
“It was really cool to see how Olympic athletes train,” DeFalco said. “I wasn’t in awe or nervous. I was just amazed I got the opportunity to practice with them.”
Tyler Hildebrand, a former U.S. national team setter who has worked with DeFalco the past two years, boldly puts his pupil and NBA superstar LeBron James in the same sentence.
“I saw LeBron play in high school,” Hildebrand said. “Obviously, LeBron is LeBron, and maybe it’s not as big a difference, but the way T.J. is so much better than other kids his age reminds me of (James).
“There’s no question that T.J. is the best volleyball player in the nation for his age group. I don’t think anyone would debate that.”
What is up for debate is whether DeFalco, who is a 6-foot-3 left-side hitter, will ultimately pursue beach volleyball or the indoor game.
Hildebrand, the club director for The HBC -- which stands for Huntington Beach Club -- said DeFalco will have more opportunities indoors.
“I have seen him play indoors and on the beach, and he’s good at both,” Hildebrand said. “But the beach game is in a tough spot right now. The AVP Tour went bankrupt, and other than the top six to eight guys, the money on the beach is very limited.
“Indoors is different. First of all, you have to play indoors to compete in college because there is no (NCAA) sand volleyball for men. Secondly, the money is better overseas.”
At his size, DeFalco already has the physical requirements to play defense on the beach, but he may have to grow a bit more to be an elite hitter indoors.
Jon Aharoni, the coordinator of USA Beach Volleyball Development, said DeFalco is a natural on the sand.
“He’s got huge feet and hands -- he’s not done growing,” Aharoni said. “I’m a big fan of TJ’s. He’s coachable and has really improved in the past year. He’s not there yet, but he is good.
“He’s a kid I could very easily see representing the USA in beach volleyball someday.”
As for whether DeFalco continues to grow, there are mixed clues coming from his family. His father, Torey, is just 5-10. But Torey has a brother who is 6-11. His mother, Gina, is 5-8.
Torey, a marketing consultant, and Gina both remain active in leagues. Their seven children, who range in ages from 8 to 29, all have played volleyball, although none at T.J.’s level. All seven kids are or were home-schooled, and all seven have names starting with the letter “T.”
Torey, who said he has always been “a bit of a rebel,” decided along with his wife to home-school the kids because the job he had at the time forced the family to relocate often.
“Rather than subject them to the stresses of moving from school to school, we chose another option,” Torey said. “We also wanted to help them develop a love for learning.”
According to T.J. DeFalco, the flexible schedule of home-schooling has given him an edge in volleyball.
“I like all the time it gives me to be on the beach training,” he said. “The part I like least (about home-schooling) is the social aspect. I don’t get to hang out with friends as much as if I were at a school.”
Even so, DeFalco already has had an interesting life. He grew up in Missouri, where his family raised exotic animals.
“It was kind of like the movie ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ ” DeFalco said.
His older brother Tony was once kicked in the leg by an emu, a large bird that is a member of the ostrich family. The injury required 80 stitches, DeFalco said.
From Missouri, the family moved to San Diego, and in January, they relocated again, this time to Huntington Beach.
DeFalco is not sure if he will play high school volleyball. But with or without high school volleyball, the sport is ever present in DeFalco’s life. He trains nearly every day, whether it’s on the beach or indoors.
Jose Loiola, a former pro beach player in Brazil who now helps Aharoni coach the U.S. Under-19 program, raves about DeFalco.
“T.J. is very mature for his age,” Loiola said. “He is very athletic and explosive and shows great skills. There are some players who are good at one thing but not another, but T.J. has the whole package.”