The late-blooming and stellar volleyball career of John Carroll grad Andrew Cranford began with a watchful eye and a positive push.
A three-sport athlete who grew up taking turns among soccer, basketball and lacrosse, Cranford was unexpectedly cut from the soccer team in 2002, his sophomore year. It opened the door for volleyball, a sport he had never played until he stepped onto the court in his junior year.
Cranford, a 6-foot-5 middle hitter, went on to enjoy a stellar four-year career at Stevens Institute of Technology before getting a taste of professional volleyball in Germany, from which he recently returned after a month with a team in Rottenburg.
At Stevens, he was the Division III National Newcomer of the Year as a freshman in 2005 and the National Player of the Year as a senior in 2008. He earned All-America honors three years.
Imagine going from never having played a sport to making Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" a couple of years later.
"One morning I went from sleeping to my coach calling me to tell me I had to get my photo taken for 'Faces in the Crowd,' " said Cranford, now 22, who earned the recognition for his fine freshman season. "I was kind of confused, and it was kind of the same emotion through my freshman year going from not expecting much to receiving all these awards."
Former John Carroll volleyball coach Herb Simon would scan the cafeteria, hallways and anywhere else he could find potential players. Football came first, soccer came second and any other fall sports were a distant third or beyond.
"I was desperate and would ask any individual who wasn't playing any other fall sports. I'd say, 'If you're not playing a fall sport and you're looking for an exciting new sport, you should come out for volleyball,' " said Simon, who first approached Cranford while he was shooting baskets the summer before his junior year.
Cranford, unfamiliar with the sport and more focused on basketball, wasn't sold. But his parents urged him to try, and he has been pounding down kills ever since.
"To me, it was kind of a sport nobody really played or knew about - like bowling or something. And that's what kind of turned me off at first," Cranford said. "But once I got in there and figured out what it was all about, the speed of the game and the power of the game at the men's level really interested me."
Naturally athletic, smart and blessed with uncanny leaping ability (he can reach 11 feet, 6 inches, so his entire chest is above the men's 8-foot net), Cranford proved a quick study and further polished his skills playing on Maryland's Junior Olympic Program based in College Park.
"Andrew's really a smart individual, and then when you apply that to the fact he's a phenomenal athlete, he was able to pick up and embrace the game very quickly. Some kids just got it, and he's one of those rare kids," Stevens coach Patrick Dorywalski said.
The individual awards Cranford received over the years were secondary to team success. John Carroll captured the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship his junior year and reached the title game the next. Stevens, which regularly fares well against Division I teams, was ranked in the top five in each of Cranford's four years and made three trips to the Division III semifinals.
Cranford, who got a degree in engineering, signed to play professionally in Germany. But the language barrier, having trouble finding other things to occupy his time while he was not playing, and being away from home took their toll, and he returned after playing in four matches.
"It was kind of like being on a team, but not being part of a team because of the language barrier," he said. "The guys were all nice, but we're on the bus and they were all speaking German among each other. So it was kind of a constant feeling of being left out."
Now home, Cranford expects to land a "real world job" dealing with statistics in the near future. He still looks to play volleyball, planning to hook on to a high-level club team and compete in national tournaments.
Each Friday, The Baltimore Sun will catch up with a former area high school sports figure. In the spotlight today is former John Carroll volleyball player Andrew Cranford. To suggest former athletes or coaches to be considered for Alumni Report, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .