October 6, 2020 – By NJP
Like many rising seniors for the 2020 school year, Steven Gao is faced with a final year as a high school student athlete after missing an entire season of volleyball last March at the beginning of the COVID crisis. Steven is relative newcomer to volleyball after concentrating on fencing for almost five years leading into his freshman year. Steve has been a fixture at CORE, his volleyball club over the past three years and has quickly made an impact. He was on the 18-1 team last season as a junior and returns this year as a senior leader with a talented group that are expected have a fine winter season.
Steven is a young man with many talents. He comes from a sports minded family with all his siblings playing sports in high school and college. He is an accomplished artist as well and plans to pursue a career in computer science. He is an articulate and encouraging young man that certainly has a bright future both on and off the court.
We reached out to his Club Coach Pedro Mundaray expecting him to focus on Steven’s volleyball talent. Although he did share how strong Steven’s on court talents are, his main focus was on talking about him as a person. Coach shared “There is a lot I can say about Steven! But something that makes him not just a great player, but an awesome human being, is his passion to help others be the best that they can be.” It sounds like Gao has carved out a leadership position this year. Coach continued… “Inside and outside the court, he is a great teammate and someone his peers can rely on when things get tough.”
With Steven and fellow senior Tyler Tam firing up the offense, we could see WWPS jump back into contention for top honors in the Burlington. Which would be an amazing consolation prize after the agony of a complete missed season.
Here is our interview with Steven…
Tell us a bit about yourself, Steven?
My name is Steven Gao and I am a senior at West Windsor Plainsboro High School South. I am in the graduating class of 2021 and I live in Plainsboro. I have 3 siblings, two sisters and one brother who are all athletes. My oldest sister fenced for Princeton, my brother also fenced, and my other sister rowed for Rutgers.
How long have you played volleyball and what inspired you to take up volleyball initially?
Until the summer before my freshman year at high school I had barely approached Volleyball aside from middle school Physical Education. I was actually originally a fencer and I had fenced for 5 years, but I was never really passionate about the sport even though I was relatively good after so much practice. Some of my friends started to talk to varsity members on the South volleyball team and they started playing so I decided to join them as well. The dynamic of the sport was completely different than fencing and I started to see that I got much more satisfaction playing volleyball after just a few months compared to fencing after 5 years. The team aspect and the feeling of being able to play a sport with my friends got me hooked on Volleyball and I have wanted to improve ever since. Now, I have played 3 club seasons (not including the current club season) and 2 school seasons (not including last year).
What are your metrics/details? Height, vertical, position, club team, etc. What’s your favorite position to play?
I am 6’ 2” and I have a vertical reach of 10’ 5”. I actually started playing Volleyball as a middle until I became a wing hitter and I play either outside or opposite with equal proficiency. For my club team CORE I am playing outside on the 18’s team and I really enjoy outside because you are mobile in every rotation and are a part of the majority of the plays on the court.
Tell us about your Pirate teammates. Who do you expect will be this year’s standout and up and coming players?
I think that our team this year has a lot of great players and potential. I think that my two teammates and friends Tyler Tam and Alex Yu are going to be players to look at this year. Tyler (Outside) has a great swing and athleticism paired with solid passing and Alex (Libero) is a really fast player who commits to every pass and hustles for each and every play.
NJP considers you as one of the top players in the state. Do you plan on playing in College? (If so, which ones are you looking at?)
I really want to play in college and I have received a few offers but there has not been much success connecting with colleges I am also academically interested in. Regardless of whether or not there is an official volleyball team at the college I am attending I plan to pursue volleyball at a higher level through beach and indoor leagues.
You had over 100 kills as sophomore during an outstanding season for the Pirates. What are your personal goals for this season?
For this season I am not looking at a specific kill goal because I think that the numbers are just the surface of your impact as a player. Of course I expect myself to perform much better in every aspect of the game, as I have had a complete transformation as a player since sophomore year. But, I just really want to focus on setting the proper tempo and mood for the team every game and practice. I think that a really successful team is made up of serious individuals with passion that also get along with each other really well. I hope to be someone easy to interact with and serious on the court so that we can all improve together as players and as a team.
What is your expectation for this years South squad?
My expectation for the South squad is to sweep through our conference and make a statement at States this year. I hope that we can show that we are a strong team as we have not made a significant impact on the NJ high school scene as of recent years. I expect to see a lot of improvement in terms of communication and bringing a lot of new strategies to our play with our experienced players.
Tell us about your high school Coach.
South’s Varsity Volleyball coach is Mike Hussong and he is a really passionate coach. He also coaches Boys Basketball as well and he always likes to think of new drills and exercises to keep us engaged as we practice each day. Hussong also loves to keep us in shape and during pre-season he is always focused on getting us to be the most athletic we can be as the season approaches. On the court he is really expressive, whether we are doing good or bad and always gives us pep talks and tries to get us motivated so we are mentally prepared for every game. Hussong doesn’t expect perfection on every play but he expects improvement and you can see how satisfied he is when his players improve together and show it on the court.
Tell us about your club experience at CORE.
I have been playing at CORE since I started Volleyball and I have played two seasons of club volleyball and am onto my third year with them. I think that CORE is a really great club because of the many opportunities it gives the players to interact with each other aside from practice. We are encouraged to go out together for team bonding and play at their open gyms to get to know each other better in a more relaxed environment. The facilities there are great and the coaches get really invested in your life as well by helping you with potential colleges and reaching out to recruiters. Practices are always serious and well prepared to help us improve separate skills each practice (blocking, hitting, transition, covering, serve reception, etc). Overall CORE is a great club with people that care not only take care of your development as a player, but also as a person.
Who is your support group? (Mom and Dad? (“They love shout outs so don’t hesitate if appropriate”), brothers, sisters, friends?)
My main support group has to be my dad (Brian Gao) and my sister (Michelle Gao). They always come to every single one of my tournaments to take video and cheer my team on. They help me with everything from my path in life to the food I eat between games at a tournament. There is no way I could have come even close to where I am now without either of them helping me.
What are your other hobbies or interests?
I am really interested in drawing, I paint, sketch, and draw digitally whenever I can. Any sort of creative work lets my mind breathe a little and it helps me think about things I need to accomplish. As I write this I have an easel to my left with a canvas of a portrait I am painting right now. I think everyone should have some sort of activity that lets their mind just go wild because sometimes there are too many important things in life to think about all at once.
What do you plan to study in college or what is your career path?
I am still not 100% certain about what I want to pursue in life but I am looking towards design related subjects at the moment but also computer science as a second possibility. Art really faded from my life as I progressed through High School years because of my focus on academics and Volleyball. But recently I have really gotten back into my artistic passion so right now that is the type of career path I am trying to follow. On the other hand I have taken Computer Science classes in high school and I find the process enjoyable and it is similar to what my dad does at the moment.
What else would you like us to know about you?
I would like for people to know that I actually lost 50 lbs during and after my Sophomore season because of Volleyball and other personal reasons. I don’t want people to think that I mentioned this because I wanted to show off, but to make a point. I want to tell people that they don’t have to be naturally gifted or athletic to pursue something they are passionate about. I know that I will never be the most athletic, tallest, or the greatest volleyball player, but I do know that I was able to reach my current level by dedicating myself to the game I am so passionate about. I think that as a person you should not be discouraged by how good other people are because then you aren’t focusing enough about yourself. You should believe in yourself and if you can’t do that you should prove to yourself that you are someone worth believing in.