By David Willis
---- — There was a time, not that long ago, when the idea of starting for the Andover High volleyball team terrified Alec Dean.
“I was so scared as a freshman,” he remembered with a laugh. “Before my first game, I went out and started warming up about two hours too early. I was very nervous, but after a while I began to settle in.”
Three years later, Dean is bursting with the well-deserved confidence of a senior captain with a pair of All-Conference seasons to his name.
The outside hitter — who earned early admission to Cornell University in New York — now hopes to turn that experience into a deep tournament run this season, which the Golden Warriors kick off tomorrow by hosting Milford.
“Alec brings tremendous skills to the court,” Warriors coach E.J. Perry said. “He has great skill and lots of experience as a three-year starter and two-year captain. He is a well-respected leader and a great player.”
Dean credits those skills — which allowed him to average 15 kills a night last season — to a unique start in the sport.
Growing up, he learned volleyball playing almost exclusively with girls.
“My dad got me into playing volleyball in elementary school,” he said. “At both High Plain Elementary School and Wood Hill Middle School, there was an after-school volleyball program. No guys played, so I was always playing with and against girls.
“That is how I learned the game, and it really helped a lot. The girls game is a totally different game. It is very focused on passing, not hitting like the guys. So playing with the girls helped make me a strong passer. Once I moved to the guys game, hitting came pretty easy to me.”
Dean had no trouble fitting into the men’s game when he arrived at Andover High, earning a starting job as libero as a freshman. But gaining the poise to star against much older players did not immediately come.
“It was probably about three games in when I stared to feel comfortable,” Dean said. “During that game, our coach then (Dave Kuykendall) pulled me aside and yelled at me for being too nervous. He told me, ‘You are better than most of the guys on the court. Play like it.’
“After that, I started playing the girls game that came naturally to me, and it worked.”
Dean finished his freshman campaign in impressive fashion, placing fifth on the team with 97 digs, 178 serves received successfully and 12 aces.
But his greatest memory turned out to be a loss, when the No. 12 Golden Warriors nearly shocked top-seeded Haverhill in the Division 1 North tournament.
“We went to (the maximum) five games and it was just incredible,” he said. “Half of their team played Division 1 volleyball and it was so close. It was nearly an upset and I was just hooked. I loved it.”
Dean continued to break out as a sophomore, earning All-Merrimack Valley Conference honors. Again playing libero, he led the Warriors with 281 serves received and was third in digs (163) and aces (27).
But he faced a new challenge heading into last season, as Kuykendall stepped down as coach due to work commitments and football coach E.J. Perry, a former state volleyball champion coach in Salem, N.H., took over as head man.
“We really went in not knowing what to expect,” Dean said. “I had talked to my friends from Salem and they said he was very intense. I was nervous. It was almost like going back to my freshman year and trying out again. But it soon became natural with Coach Perry.”
The transition to Perry didn’t slow Dean. Moving to outside hitter, he averaged 15 kills, six digs and four blocks each match, again earning All-MVC honors.
Following that season, Dean began setting his eyes on his senior season.
“I am taking this year more serious than ever, because it is my last year,” said the captain. “It is my last chance and I want to be as good a player and a leader as I can for this team.
“Last year’s record (9-12) was a little disappointing. I think we have the potential to have a great year. We have a lot of seniors with a lot of experience and some very talented newcomers.”
One of those newcomers happens to be Dean’s little brother, freshman Devin, who is drawing comparisons to a pretty talented player.
“It’s a little bit weird having my brother there,” Alec Dean admitted. “I try to push him, but I don’t wan to push him too hard just because he’s my brother. He’s exactly like me out there when I was a freshman. He grew up playing with the girls, too, so he is learning the boys game. I like having him out there. I know I can trust him.”
Star in the classroom
The volleyball court isn’t Dean’s only area of excellence. He is also a superstar academically.
Dean is currently enrolled in Advanced Placement Spanish, physics C and biology and scored a 2,100 on his SATs.
For his efforts, he earned early admission to elite Cornell University, where he will study engineering.
But before his athletic career comes to an end — Cornell does not have a volleyball team — he wants to go out with a bang.
“Our first goal is to at least make the playoffs,” he said. “After that, we want to at least earn a Division 1 title and we would love to play for a state title. I am expecting more from this team. We have a shot.”