With all due respect to author Malcolm Gladwell — as well as to singers Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber — 10,000 hours probably wasn’t enough for Zach Eschenberg.
In his book Outliers, Gladwell wrote that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill was to practice for 10,000 hours. Eschenberg, a senior outside hitter for the BYU men’s volleyball team, figures that he took “a million” reps serving and receiving on the “Dark Side,” the curtained area of the Smith Fieldhouse where freshmen, reserves and walk-ons hone their craft.
The hard work paid off: The 6-foot-6 Eschenberg has earned a starting role on the undefeated (10-0) and second-ranked Cougars and is making a big impact with his play.
“With Zach, you talk to the guy and how do you not smile?” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “We preach hard work and putting your mind to something and not seeing immediate results is hard. We have to understanding, it’s all a process. That’s coach-speak and people are tired of that, but it’s a journey.”
Eschenberg’s journey from there to here is an interesting story.
He grew up in Newbury Park, California dreaming of playing hoops for BYU, where his parents met and married. One of his friends introduced him to volleyball in elementary school and Eschenberg was hooked on both sports.
“My basketball coaches didn’t like me playing both sports,” Eschenberg said. “It ended up being a very hostile environment. I decided to walk away from basketball halfway through my sophomore year of high school and just play volleyball year round.”
Eschenberg was recruited by the former BYU men’s volleyball staff (Chris McGown and Rob Neilson) and also received attention from Lewis University and UC Santa Barbara.
“After looking at all the pros and cons, I really wanted to come to BYU,” Eschenberg said. “They have a great volleyball program and an awesome spiritual environment. That was something I really wanted, to be surrounded by a group of friends and teammates with the same values and who would support me in those values.”
Eschenberg signed with BYU during his senior year of high school and then left on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to Lima, Peru at the age of 18.
He returned to BYU in the fall of 2017 and went to work on his volleyball career.
“I got to BYU and it really hit me,” he said. “I’m here, now what?”
What came first was a lot of hard work, training and learning.
“My freshman year I was playing behind (All-Americans) Brenden Sander and Jake Langlois,” Eschenberg said. “In my mind I felt like this uncoordinated returned missionary who had no chance to ever play like those guys.”
That’s where the millions of Dark Side reps came into play. Eschenberg said he had open communication with the coaching staff about what was expected and how they wanted him to improve. He didn’t make a lot of road trips early in his career so he and some of the other reserves would play on the outdoor volleyball courts at Carriage Cove Apartments.
“When it would start warming up outside, we’d go play beach volleyball with some of the other guys on the Dark Side when the team was traveling,” Eschenberg said. “It was great getting lots of touches and seeing the game from that perspective. It translated to a better indoor IQ and I was reacting to what I saw much better.”
Eschenberg played in just 32 sets and started five times during his first three years in the program. As a senior, he has started nine matches and has 61 kills, hitting .296 with 45 digs and six service aces. He had a career-high 14 kills against UC Irvine and was instrumental in a big win against UC Santa Barbara last Saturday with 12 kills (.333), two aces and seven digs.
“He’s steady and does a really nice job,” Olmstead said. “I’ve said a couple of times this year that Esch has been the MVP of the weekend, but I don’t think he cares about stuff like that. It’s fun to be a part of those stories and every year those seem to kind of develop and unfold.”
Eschenberg put just as much focus into wooing Kennedy Redding, a middle blocker on the BYU women’s volleyball team and now his wife.
The two met during their freshmen year when Eschenberg, Mitch Worthington and Wil Stanley had a class with one of Redding’s roommates.
“I thought she was really cute and really nice,” Eschenberg said. “Honestly, she’s probably the best person I had ever met and I really wanted to be friends with her.”
Eschenberg would look for Redding at the Student Athlete Building to do homework together and just talk. He said he was nervous about asking her on a date because he really enjoyed her friendship and didn’t want to blow it.
Redding invited Eschenberg to a Halloween pumpkin carving, which is a women’s volleyball team tradition. Eschenberg couldn’t go because of a family wedding in Las Vegas, but he asked Redding if she wanted to do something the following weekend.
She accepted and they started dating. The two were married in July of 2018 at the Bountiful Temple.
Zach Eschenberg is majoring in neuroscience with a minor in business management. He is headed for dental school after his playing days are over.
“I’d put money on that kid,” Omstead said. “He’s married to an outstanding young lady I was fortunate enough to recruit (when he was BYU women’s volleyball coach), so for me its extra special. Seeing a kid that is willing to put everything above his own goals and puts the team first and whatever the coaches need, to see it all come together, he’s done a remarkable job.”