Having regularly packed the stands in Dillon Gymnasium, the men’s volleyball team has concluded one of the most successful seasons in its program’s history. Volleyball is a sport that runs deep in the lifeblood of California culture, and this has been no exception for junior libero Tony Ensbury, a native of Manhattan Beach. The defensive standout competed in the Junior Olympics several times before coming to Princeton. In addition, he has played for the U.S. Junior National Team for the last two summers. We at The Daily Princetonian sat down with him to talk about his game, his team and his soft drinks of choice.
Daily Princetonian: Where are you from and what’s it like there?
Tony Ensbury: I’m from Manhattan Beach, California. It’s pretty nice. It’s nice and sunny. We’re close to the beach, and you usually end up hanging out at the beach and playing volleyball with your friends.
DP: How would you say the East Coast compares to the so-called Golden Coast?
TE: Honestly, I haven’t noticed anything much different about the people. The biggest factor for me is just the weather. Winter was really long this year compared to freshman year, which I really didn’t like.
DP: Is there any sort of California volleyball lingo you have for us?
TE: It’s not necessarily strictly volleyball lingo, but “gnarly” is a word that not many people would use from the East Coast. I say “chill” a lot. Also, my teammates bag on me when I say “mellow.”
DP: What are the differences between NorCal and SoCal?
TE: The most obvious difference is that NorCal people will say “hella sick.” You’ll never hear that from somebody from Southern California. Other than that, there’s not much of a difference.
DP: When did you start playing volleyball?
TE: I started playing beach probably when I was around five or six. I used to go down with my dad. He would play with his friends, and I would play with my brothers on the side. But I didn’t start indoor volleyball until I was 12.
DP: Volleyball is still kind of a nascent sport in college. Could you talk about the development of the game as you’ve seen throughout your career at Princeton?
TE: Yeah. I’d say the overall level is evening out. It used to be that West Coast teams were super dominant. We’ve also seen the Midwest teams in the MIVA get a lot stronger. One of them, Lewis, even got an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament this year.
DP: That’s fairly controversial, correct?
TE: Yeah. Pepperdine was… It’s very debatable. Even our league, the EIVA, has gotten a lot better. There’s better volleyball being played across the country.
DP: What kind of misconceptions about the sport do you run into a lot?
TE: I’d say one of the biggest misconceptions centers on serving and people’s perception about serving. In the men’s game, you really need to serve tough to win. I always hear from my friends, “Why is your serving so bad?” People miss a lot of serves. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If people are crushing their serves, and you miss one or two here or there, that’s really good. And most people think if you miss any, it’s just stupid.
DP: Could you talk a little bit about the rivalry you guys have developed with Penn State?
TE: Really, until the last couple of years, it wasn’t that much of a rivalry. I don’t think we had beaten them in a long time, like over 15 years. My freshman year, we almost won. But that was at Dillon Gym. At their place, we’ve always lost in three [sets]. As we’ve gotten better, it’s turned more into a rivalry. Penn State is always going to be good. But while we’re competing at the same level, we kind of make it a rivalry, because we want to be as good as they are.
DP: What about your rivalry with Harvard?
TE: With Harvard, it’s always that Ivy battle, because we’re the only two Ivy League teams. But personally, I know their starting outside [hitter] and one of their middles, and now I know another one of their outsides. I used to play little league baseball with him back in fifth grade. So now playing against Harvard is just really fun because I want to beat DJ [White].
DP: Your play defensively is very “all-out.” Could you talk about how you’ve developed that sort of style?
TE: I think for anybody who wants to be a good defender, you need to just play all-out. One of my coaches told me once when he was training me to be a libero that you just need to sacrifice your body. And at the end of the day, it’s just a volleyball and a hardwood floor. You’re not going to get that hurt. And so you go for everything. You never know what’s going to happen if you go for it.
DP: On GoPrincetonTigers.com your listed “Unofficial Team Role” is defensive coordinator. Could you talk about what that means for you as a teammate?
TE: I guess I kind of help making sure people are in the right position. As a libero, I have less responsibility to hit. So after the first touch I’m usually out of the play for the first couple seconds. So you can help make sure the defense is in the correct positions.
DP: Why did you decide to come to Princeton?
TE: I was deciding between here and USC. I knew I could play here all four years. Or at least I knew I would start as a freshman coming in. And I couldn’t turn down the academics here and the opportunity to come to such an elite school. And as much as I like California, USC is a little close to my house. It’s only a 10-minute drive, so it’s nice to be further away.
DP: How would you describe the social atmosphere of your team?
TE: We’ve got a very interesting group of guys. There’s a broad range of most personalities. A good number of the guys on my team are in TI. I’m pretty good friends with them, being in TI myself. We focus on volleyball when we need to focus on volleyball, but we still have a good time. We also love to hang out with the girls’ team.
DP: What are some notable pre-match rituals that you or your teammates have?
TE: Sometimes [junior opposite hitter] Cody Kessel will read a book off on the side, just to relax for a bit. [Senior middle blocker] Brad Howard would typically go for a “sit-down” warm-up where he’d hold down the bench and make sure everything’s running properly. I usually listen to music really loud. That kind of ticked off some of my teammates because I couldn’t hear anything for 50 minutes straight when they wanted to talk to me. Brad and I always did a chest-bump right before the game started. I don’t really know how that started, but it just happened one time and it worked, so we kept it going. I liked that.
DP: Who has the best trash talk on the team, and could you talk about the role of trash talking in general?
TE: Our coach tries to keep us from talking too much trash. There’s definitely a fine line between being classy and being just annoying, honestly. But we have trash talk that we aim more at our own team. In practice, especially, there’s heated competition. But honestly, when somebody makes a good play, it’s more fun to turn around and celebrate with them. [Freshman middle blocker] Junior [Oboh] does some pretty good trash talk. Cody gets up there in people’s faces. [Sophomore outside hitter] Devin [Stearns] and [senior outside hitter] Pat [Schwagler] do as well. I try. I’m always in the back row. But I try to get up and yell at the setter and chirp away at his ear. I’m sure it just drives him crazy. It’s not necessarily just trash talk. Getting in their ear is pretty fun.
DP: Cody Kessel seems to be one of the country’s best. You’ve played with the elite of the nation. How does he compare to those at his position?
TE: He’s right up there. I think he earned an EVCA All-America award. He’s always top-team EIVA and one of our go-to hitters. He crushes the ball. I’ve never seen someone quite as athletic as him. He flies. He’s a fun guy to have out there on the court. Because sometimes he’ll do some goofy celebration. Some other times he’ll be super intense. He’s fun to play with and he’s right up there athletically.
DP: This is the proverbial “On-Tap” question. If each of your five fingers was a soft drink tap, which drinks would you choose?
TE: Probably Gatorade, just because Gatorade’s really good. Make one of the tabs water. I’m not a big soda drinker, but I might do some P.O.G., Passion Orange Guava. I would go with some root beer. Last one, maybe chocolate milk.
DP: Volleyball’s played in a number of diverse places around the world. You may have run into some of these other national teams at tournaments. How do they compare to you guys?
TE: Volleyball’s actually the second most popular sport in the world, behind soccer. I went to the World Championships this summer, so we played a bunch of teams from Africa, Europe, Asia, South America. Literally everywhere. We would talk to some of the guys, and in some areas their skills are a little less developed, but they’re more athletic. In some other areas, the guys play early as professionals, as opposed to in college like we do. They play every day at a much higher level. We had a pretty athletic team this year, but we didn’t do that well because some of these guys are just crafty veterans. They don’t necessarily jump as high, but they know what they’re doing because they’ve played at a high level for a long time.
DP: If you could be a bender from one of the four nations in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which would you choose?
TE: I’d be an airbender. Because you can fly around, and with air you can honestly beat everything. Think about it. You could use air to stop fire and stop water. If you did enough air power, you could stop earth.
DP: Could you talk about what the “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy has meant to you?
TE: Me and my friends actually watched all three. We did the “Road to Mordor.” All three extended editions in a row. I actually wasn’t there for the whole thing. But I’ve seen them all multiple times. It’s the greatest story ever told. What else can you say about it? “The Two Towers” is my favorite movie. The Battle for Helm’s Deep is epic. It’s the best battle scene ever.