NOTE: This is the first of three profile stories of the EIVA Hall of Fame Class for 2019. Tarik Rodgers will be profiled next week, and Ron Larsen will be profiled the week of April 8.
Doug Emich remembers the two seasons he played volleyball at Rutgers-Newark, the pride on campus, the confidence the team had from its success, and the opportunities to play against the best college teams in the nation.
Both seasons were capped by trips to the NCAA semifinals, once facing UCLA, the other year meeting USC – essentially the royalty of college volleyball – and competing against some of the top names in the sport.
“It was fantastic,” Emich said recently as he recalled those final four trips. “A highlight of my career – absolutely. The Rutgers campus was just always abuzz. It was fantastic. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Emich was a standout athlete for the Scarlet Raiders for the 1978 and 1979 seasons, in the middle of a four-year run of Eastern Collegiate Volleyball League titles and national semifinal appearances.
It is for his play at Rutgers-Newark, and contributions to the sport after, that led to his being honored as part of the 2019 class for the EIVA Hall of Fame. He, along with Tarik Rodgers and Ron Larsen, will be inducted April 20 during the EIVA Championship match, to be played at the site of the EIVA’s regular-season champion.
Emich’s journey into the sport hardly resembles the paths taken by most players on current NCAA rosters. He graduated from Hempfield High School near Lancaster, Pa., in 1972, but waited five years to enroll in college. He had gone to trade school and learned to cook. He also was a swimmer in high school, and didn’t take his 6-foot-6 frame to a volleyball court until after high school.
When he got to the Newark campus, he hopped right onto a huge wave of success for the program. The team was popular, and there were visions of greater success both for the program and for the growth of men’s volleyball beyond the western U.S. The four-straight ECVL (the forerunner of the EIVA) titles produced four straight meetings with either UCLA or USC, each match ending with 3-0 sweeps.
“As far as volleyball goes, I think the east coast was pretty naïve,” Emich said. “All you heard was west coast this, west coast that, USC, UCLA, and then when you get on the court just to start warming up and you watch those guys, yes, it was very intimidating for me.”
Among the stars on the opposite side of the net were some names still recognizable today, men who laid the foundation for a strong international presence for American volleyball – Karch Kiraly, Pat Powers, Dusty Dvorak, Sinjin Smith and Steve Timmons. Rutgers-Newark finished fourth in three of those tournaments, and had a third-place finish in 1979, bouncing back to beat Ball State in five sets in the consolation match.
“We were kind of awe-struck at their programs,” Emich said. “They had a larger team, they were pretty well more disciplined than we were, but playing against them, you forget about all that and you start playing.”
Following that season, Emich left school for Colorado Springs, Colo., to train with the U.S. national program, and those former foes had become teammates. The group of mostly college-age players trained in hopes of making the 1980 Olympics. The U.S. did not qualify to make the field for the summer games, and that became moot when the U.S. declared a boycott of the Games, set for Moscow, over the Soviet Union’s invasion the year before of Afghanistan. The political turmoil left the American sports programs as pawns paying the price.
While many of those U.S. teammates stuck around and earned Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 88, Emich decided he didn’t want to remain in the Rocky Mountains.
“I kind of got dejected and came back to New Jersey,” he said.
He didn’t give up on the sport, however, discovering beach volleyball. He and friend Mike Borga co-founded the Jersey Shore Volleyball Association in the early 1980s, bringing in something that had been lacking on the Garden State beaches. The JSVBA lasted better than two decades. Emich also played in numerous tournaments around the country, either indoor or on sand, competing well into his mid-40s.
He also returned to the kitchen, and was a corporate or executive chef until 2015, when his wife Sharon passed away. He is now a chef for Whole Foods with two daughters, one a veterinarian, and one studying at Monmouth and a member of the swim team.
He is close to retirement, but he knows volleyball delivered to him some pretty special moments.