By Caleb Lunetta
Signal Staff Writer
When the U.S. Men’s Volleyball Team enters Ariake Arena in Tokyo to take on their best counterparts from around the world, two of the Americans fighting for the team to win the gold will be Santa Clarita Valley natives.
While David Smith, a veteran for the team and former Saugus High School graduate, will be fighting to seize the gold that had eluded him in the 2012 and 2016 games, Kyle Ensing, a Valencia graduate, is set to compete in his first ever Olympics and be fighting for both the gold and to honor a person who helped him to the arena in the first place: his mom.
The Ensing Family
It was always Jeanne Ensing’s dream to see the family’s name emblazoned on a Team USA uniform. And while Kyle Ensing knows she can’t be there to see it — a year removed from his mother’s passing, said he’ll head to the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games knowing that she was the reason he had made it there.
“She was my biggest inspiration through all this,” said Kyle. “She played volleyball in high school and in college, and then kind of got (his brother) Eric into it.”
Valencia natives, Ensing and his brother Eric were always pushed to do their best — whether on a court, field or in a classroom — by their parents. However, as Ensing’s father puts it, his wife was a primary driving force behind his kids’ careers.
“I credit all of this to their mom because she was the volleyball player and her idea,” said Todd Ensing, Kyle’s father. “She kind of managed them and made sure that they were getting their homework done and getting good grades.
“She was the one that saw the big picture … she was the brains behind it, she was the manager and I was kind of the support behind that,” Kyle Ensing added.
When asked about their parents, the Ensings’ coaches at both college and the high school level fondly remember both the Ensings’ mom and dad — calling them attentive and supportive of their kids’ and teams’ needs.
“Well they were just super involved, great people,” said Valencia Vikings men’s volleyball coach Josh Kornegay, who coached both Kyle and Eric during their high school tenures. “We would have parent meetings, and they were always putting in the time, they asked, ‘Where can we help; what can we do?’”
“I mean, I never did not see them at an event,” said Kornegay. “Either they were both there, or they always had one representing.”
Alan Knipe, the Long Beach State University men’s volleyball coach who also coached the Ensing brothers consecutively, described Todd and Jeanne as the ideal parents.
“When you talk to them, you know regardless of if their kid is starting or not, they want the entire experience for their son, to go through college, be a better person, get his degree, become a better volleyball player,” said Knipe.
After Jeanne passed away last year, Knipe made a point to drive up from Long Beach to attend her funeral at Eternal Valley and support the family that had been a staple in his program for a number of years.
“Having the Ensing family within our program and our family was just one of the all-time great experiences for me as a head coach,” said Knipe. “Jeanne and Todd did such a good job raising their boys.”
David Smith and Kyle Ensing have a few things in common, including that they’re both from the Santa Clarita Valley, both are now Olympic Volleyball players and both did not consider volleyball their primary sport until their teen years.
“When I was in high school, soccer was my primary sport,” said Smith, who played for Saugus between 1999-2003. “Volleyball was kind of my offseason sport right after soccer so I didn’t have to go to PE.”
“I was just playing basketball and football so there wasn’t really any volleyball when I was starting high school,” said Ensing, then saying that he watched as his brother Eric went to Long Beach State to compete in volleyball at a collegiate level. “That’s when I kind of realized, ‘Oh, volleyball can get me into college and I can take it as far as I want to.”
Smith said he realized he could play volleyball and receive his major in civil engineering at the same time, and after winding up at the University of California, Irvine, his path was set before him.
Ensing would go on to be named the 2014 All Santa Clarita Valley Player of the Year and Daily News All-Area Player of the Year. He would lead the Vikings to the CIF-Southern Section finals as a senior and the year after would make the 2015 Boys’ Youth National Team.
Ensing, after completing high school, would go on with his brother to win NCAA national titles, be named to a handful of All-American teams and compete in volleyball championships across the globe.
Eventually, he and Smith both would establish themselves as professional volleyball players in Europe before setting their eyes on making and competing with the 2021 Tokyo U.S. Men’s Olympic Team.
Road to the Olympics
Kyle’s older brother Eric said he was proud of his brother for making the team, noting that it was not easy for him, or any other of the athletes to get there.
“It’s amazing just for him to have reached the level that he’s gotten to,” said Eric, adding that he watched as his brother continued to progress from high school to college to playing in the European leagues. “I’m just happy I got to play with him at Long Beach … and hopefully, he’ll get to show it off.”
In the way only an older brother can joke, Eric then added, “Unfortunately, he’s behind pretty much the best player in the world.” Matt Anderson, the team’s starting 6-foot, 10-inch opposite hitter, is widely regarded as the best at his position in the world.
After being on the U.S. Team that placed fifth in London and got the bronze in Rio, Smith now looks to even loftier goals due to those around him.
“I definitely give ourselves a (solid) shot, I think we should be able to come home with a medal,” said Smith. “It’s going to be a difficult tournament, but I think we’re ready.”
Just before departing for Tokyo — where they’ll stay in the Olympic Village, be subject to COVID-19 testing and health protocols and represent their country on the floor — Ensing said his team, even if they wanted to would not be able to come along with him to see him play. However, one thing he learned after joining the team did remind him of home.
As the team practiced and battled together on their tournament trips and in the run-up to the Olympics, the two said they learned that one another were from the same place, based on identifying each other’s area codes.
“We started a WhatsApp group and I noticed that one of the new numbers started with a ‘661’ and I was like, ‘Wait a minute,’” said Smith. “I found out it was Kyle and asked him where he was from and I found out he went to Valencia.”
“It was really cool because there are two guys representing the Santa Clarita Valley on an Olympic team,” said Ensing.
“There’s a lot of good young guys, and obviously Kyle is the perfect example of that,” said Smith, later adding, “I think it’s going to be an incredible tournament.”