By Walter Villa
It’s an unlikely place to find a volleyball star -- one that his club coach calls “the Spanish Karch Kiraly” -- but almost everything about Cesar Medina’s story is unusual.
Medina’s neighborhood of South Los Angeles is one of the roughest in the country.
To get to and from Jordan High School -- which sits between two housing projects -- Medina will typically walk through gang turf and witness drug use, illegal gambling and other crimes.
There’s little refuge inside Medina’s home, either. His parents have one room, and his three siblings share the other. Cesar sleeps on a mattress in the living room.
In the past, it was difficult for him to get to sleep before 3 a.m. because of all the noise and activity going on in his house, which explains why he had to repeat the ninth grade.
Medina rarely made it to class.
“It wasn’t like I was ditching,” said Medina, a 6-foot outside hitter with phenomenal leaping ability. “I’m a heavy sleeper, and I couldn’t get to school.”
Still, Medina is accountable for what transpired his first two years of high school, when he attended Fremont (Los Angeles), and he did much better in his junior and senior seasons at Jordan.
‘He’s an innocent’
But Ed DeGrasse, who has served as Medina’s club coach for the Pio Pico Middle School team the past couple of years, said the obstacles his player faces on a daily basis would have overwhelmed most people.
“He’s an innocent and very naive,” DeGrasse said. “If I could adopt him and take him out of there, I would.”
On weekends, DeGrasse drives 30 miles out of his way to pick up Medina for club matches. DeGrasse arrives at Medina’s home before the sun rises and bangs on the aluminum-foil-encased windows until someone comes to the door.
“It’s a sad situation,” DeGrasse said. “But as much as I may not like where Cesar lives, that’s his home. He probably wouldn’t be too upset if he lived his life there because that’s all he knows.”
Medina said he wants to go to a four-year college, but because he had a 1.0 GPA halfway through high school, he has no such offers. A junior college may be his best bet.
One reason Medina has gone under the radar for so long is that his high school didn’t allow him to play until he got his grades up, which finally happened in time for his junior season.
“It’s embarrassing, and I regret it,” Medina said. “School is not that hard. You just have to show up and do the work.
“Looking back on it, I could have done it and played all four years; it’s a lesson learned.”
A star is born
Once he became eligible -- he has a 3.0 GPA the past two years -- Medina was easily the most dominant force on his team, according to Jordan coach Manny Nunez.
“He’s very aggressive and competitive,” Nunez said. “He wants to mash the ball every time, and he hit quite a few facials [off of opponents].”
DeGrasse said Medina is humble and polite -- except when he is on the court.
“He’ll rip your head off,” DeGrasse said. “The ball comes at you so fast, you can’t see it coming. He hits with such violence.”
DeGrasse, who played Division I volleyball at Cal State Northridge and competed against men who went on to play in the Olympics, said Medina is the best talent he’s ever seen.
The comparison to Kiraly -- made by DeGrasse -- is attention-grabbing but seemingly unrealistic.
Kiraly is perhaps the biggest legend the sport of volleyball has ever produced, and Medina is an 18-year-old kid from the slums who learned the sport by playing against men on the dirt/cement courts at Roosevelt Park in South L.A.
Still, it’s interesting to note that there isn’t a single player on the U.S. men’s volleyball national team who looks or sounds like Medina, who is of Mexican descent.
Medina’s size is also different because there are few, if any, examples of a 6-foot outside hitter making it big in men’s volleyball.
For instance, UC Irvine, which won the national title this year in men’s volleyball, did it with outside hitters ranging from 6-2 to 6-8. And the U.S. national team uses players as tall as 6-10 at the position.
That, however, doesn’t deter DeGrasse from believing in Medina.
“He rarely gets blocked,” DeGrasse said. “He can go up in the air, look, survey the court and change his shot. He’s an exceptionally smart hitter.”
A record season
At Jordan this past season, Medina led his team in kills (489), kill-percentage (71.7), aces (95) and blocks (55). He was also second in digs (330).
With Medina leading the way, Jordan (38-6-1) set a school record for wins. The Bulldogs also went 22-1-1 down the stretch before losing 3-0 to Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach) in the Division 2 state semifinals.
Mira Costa, by the way, had six Division I players on its roster and finished No. 2 in the final POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings.
Medina was also the L.A. City Section Division 2 Player of the Year for two seasons in a row and leaves Jordan as the school’s career leader in kills.
“It feels good to make history,” Medina said. “It shows how hard our team worked. We had eight seniors, and it felt like every time we practiced, we had this chemistry.”
Medina is now attending summer school and is still trying to improve his grades. He has an offer to play volleyball and soccer -- some say he is just as gifted in that sport -- at Cerritos College, a two-year school in Norwalk, Calif.
“He’s done a lot for L.A. city volleyball,” DeGrasse said. “Ever since I saw him play at age 15, I’ve been infatuated with his game. He is a self-taught street player, but he’s phenomenal.
“People might say, ‘Wow, DeGrasse has given this kid so many chances.’ But I just can’t give up on his talent.”