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Bishop’s student plays simply for the love of the game

Wheeler Hadden isn’t angling for a college scholarship - he isn’t even sure if he’ll play volleyball at the college level next year. Yet he is one of the most talented and successful players on his high school team and a top-level player in the San Diego area.

Hadden’s dedication to a sport that likely won’t earn him a free ride in college or any other measures of fame or fortune make him a throwback of sorts. In an era in which many high school athletes seem to be playing with an individual end result in mind, Hadden plays simply for the love of the sport.

A 6-foot-1 senior at The Bishop’s School, Hadden is a standout outside hitter on the Knights’ boys volleyball team. Following the lead of his older brother, who also played at Bishop’s, he picked up the sport as a freshman at the school, joined a club team during his sophomore year, and has since grown to love it.

“The nice thing about coaching the guys is that it’s kind of like old times - it’s pure,” said Bishop’s coach Tod Mattox, who explained that Hadden is the only member of his team who plays for a club team in the offseason. “Guys improve a lot during the year, and it’s a little bit like it used to be in the old days.

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“It’s not as pretty as the girls’ game because they don’t play as much, but there’s that kind of exuberant innocence that other sports don’t always have. And that’s not a bad thing.”

While Hadden isn’t angling for a college scholarship, that doesn’t mean he isn’t serious about volleyball. His only real time off from his club team throughout the year is for the high school season, and he is the type of player whose skills always seem to be improving.

Hadden plays mostly at the outside hitter position, but is also the Knights’ primary player at serve receive and is among the team’s best passers, Mattox said. He is also skilled at setting and blocking, and has recently found some playing time in the middle of the court.

“I’d say my hitting and passing are my strongest suits, and my blocking is getting better,” Hadden said. “I’d say passing is probably the most key aspect of the game, because everything really starts with the pass.”

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Added Mattox: “He’s just an impressive jumper and attacker. You watch him in warmups, and he just bounces all over the place. He struggles with consistency sometimes when he goes for too much, but that’s only natural. He’s a big jumper with a fast arm, and he gets way over the net blocking. He’s a dynamic athlete playing boys volleyball.”

Hadden doesn’t play any other sports for Bishop’s, though he does spend a lot of his free time riding off-road vehicles with his family in the deserts of northern Mexico. He said there are plenty of things he enjoys about volleyball, things that led him once he reached high school to choose it over other sports he had played previously.

“It really comes down to being a total team sport,” Hadden said. “Most of the time, you have to hit (the ball) three times to get it over the net, and everyone can only hit it once, so there’s a lot of teamwork that’s required. It makes you incorporate the entire team - you can’t just have one great player.

“It’s just one of the better sports I’ve played.”

The Knights are off to a solid but not spectacular start to their 2007 season, owning a record just below .500 through the middle of April. Hadden said he thinks that they have the potential to win more consistently and become a playoff team before the end of the season. Much of the Knights’ success will depend on how he plays.

“He’s stepped into more of a leadership role this year,” Mattox said. “A lot of what we do revolves around what he does.”

Hadden recently visited New York University, and is also considering spending the next four years at Boston University or, closer to home, USC or UC Irvine. His focus will likely shift from volleyball to business or hotel management, two disciplines he is considering for his major.

Mattox said that’s not for a lack of ability.

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“With guys, volleyball, it’s like a lot of things: it follows the money,” Mattox said. “He’s a pretty talented volleyball player, and there are just a handful of West Coast schools and a couple on the East Coast with men’s volleyball, and it’s pretty competitive for scholarships. Consequently, people aren’t paying a lot of money to play club, and it trickles down to the high schools.”