Described as “a once in a lifetime player” for his impact on his team, his program and volleyball in the east, it is fitting that Ivan Contreras will be joining the 2013 EIVA Hall of Fame class during the EIVA Championship at Penn State. A Nittany Lion from 1994-97, his name and his legacy are still scattered throughout the record book and the impact that his presence had can still be felt, even after 16 years.
On the court, his career at Penn State was bookended by two exceptional feats: winning the National Championship in 1994 as a freshman and earning AVCA Player of the Year accolades in 1997 as a senior, the first-ever non-California player to receive the honor. Off the court, Contreras was a three-time GTE Academic All-American, majoring electrical engineering. In other words, he was rare.
Penn State men’s volleyball head coach Mark Pavlik agreed that Contreras was one of the first players to bring visibility to east coast volleyball.
“I believe that he was one of the first east coast players that made people sit up and take notice,” said Pavlik, who was an assistant on the 1994 team and took over the helm 1995. “Especially his last two years when everyone had heard about him, when he continued to put up the numbers he put up, when he moved from middle blocker to outside hitter to opposite. Everyone knew that that was the guy you had to figure out a way to slow down. Anytime that he got thrown into the same discussions that people were having about (former UCLA great) Jeff Nygaard. Jeff was considered the best in the NCAA at that time, but I don’t think Ivan was too far out of that conversation. I think that was probably the first guy from the EIVA that people seriously talked about as saying ‘hey, that’s one of the best guys we’ve ever seen.’”
A native of Mexico, Contreras played in Puerto Rico in 1992 against the USA Men’s Junior National Team, who just happened to have Pavlik as an assistant coach. According to Contreras, “history was made right then and there.”
“I had heard about Penn State because my brother was a big fan of American Football and loved both the (Pittsburgh) Steelers and the Nittany Lions,” said Contreras. “So imagine when I heard I could attend the University which my brother adored on TV. I took that chance and never let go.”
Contreras was only the second player ever to be named a four-time AVCA All-American, still holds the career kills record and ranks among the top 10 in every statistical category except assists. One could say that is the epitome of “never letting go.”
But for all of his accolades on the court, he also had a great impact off the court.
“The great characteristics that he had were everything that everyone wanted in a student-athlete,” said Pavlik. “He was an exceptional student with a challenging curriculum and being one of the best players not only on the team but also in the country, he was at Penn State and enjoyed every part of it.”
The opportunity to play at Penn State was also a life-changer, according to Contreras.
“Looking back, there have been many moments that have marked my life, most of them good. Playing at Penn State is one, if not the most important moment that affected the direction my life has gone. Having the opportunity to be a part of a serious program and having the chance to understand the way to shine and being able to succeed in that particular way has given me a lot of personal belief that has helped the way I conduct myself since then.”
The 1994 championship was special for Contreras, not only for the volleyball significance of Penn State being the first team – men’s or women’s – east of the Mississippi River to win an NCAA title in volleyball, but also for the interpersonal relationships that he formed while playing.
“I consider myself lucky to have been a part of that special group of competitors,” said Contreras, speaking of the 1994 squad. “Carlos Ortiz, Ramón Hernandez, Byron Schneider, Ed Josefoski, Kevin Hourican, and other players like Brian Miller, taught me - directly and some indirectly, even if they never noticed - how to blend in and what was needed to be successful in a group so diverse as that one was. It has been one of the most important lessons I have ever learned.
“Sometimes I look back at it when giving public motivational chats or testimonials to groups or companies, and I mention that I consider that year to be a changing year for not only volleyball in the east, but for volleyball in the USA. I say this because before that time everyone that wanted to take volleyball serious (even myself) and that wanted a (professional volleyball) future after graduating had to go to the west coast. But since then we have seen how many great players have decided to go to Penn State looking for a program that can help them start a career after they graduate and I am glad to say I was a part of that moment. Being at Penn State, you learn how to deal with the fact that it is expected of you to excel, to win, to deliver. In other words, to show why you are worthy of being called a Nittany Lion. If you take it seriously, you learn how to do all that under pressure and that is a great preparation for real life as I call it now.”
Story courtesy of Jenn Armson-Dyer