They’re laying it on thick now, the coaches, and the names just keep pouring in: Reggie Jackson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Reid Priddy, Karch Kiraly.
Wait a minute.
Did he just say Karch Kiraly?
Darrick Lucerno doubles down.
“He’s the best volleyball player since Karch Kiraly in our country,” says Lucerno of TJ DeFalco, Long Beach State’s heralded junior. “And I have a feeling that if he stays on track he’ll be the No. 1 player in the world.”
They might seem murderous, these expectations, but to be frank, DeFalco doesn’t care who you or his coaches compare him to or how they imagine his future to be. His expectations far exceed all of those, and anyway, these are nothing new.
It was in 2009 when they began in earnest. DeFalco had just moved from Missouri to Southern California. He had played a year with Wave Volleyball Club, in Del Mar, but the father of DeFalco’s beach partner, Josh Tuaniga, couldn’t bear to see this kid with a whip of an arm a God-given knack for the game of volleyball play for a different club.
He contacted Lucerno, the director for the HBC Volleyball Club, where Josh was a setter, and told him about DeFalco. And when Lucerno saw TJ hit a ball at an unofficial mid-season tryout in 2009 he couldn’t pull out his phone fast enough, so important it was to call club co-founder Tyler Hildebrand, and callhimrightnow.
As Hildebrand remembers it, it was 10, maybe 11 o’clock at night. He was setting for the national team at the time and doubling as a coach for HBC. He wasn’t in much of a mood to drive back to Golden West College to watch a kid hit a few balls.
But this isn’t any kid, Lucerno argued.
“No way,” Hildebrand said, to which Lucerno replied, “It’s a once in a lifetime friendship ask. I’m telling you, this kid is the greatest talent. He’s going to be something great.”
Hildebrand sighed, relented, turned his car around and marveled as DeFalco ripped balls as his sister, Talia, set.
“His reaction was priceless,” DeFalco said. “I’ll never forget it.”
His reaction was precisely what Lucerno had told him it would be: awestruck, excited at the tantalizing potential that had just walked into the gym.
“No one has ever seen a 13-year-old hit a ball like this,” Hildebrand said. “It was unbelievable. That’s where it started.”