COLLEGE PARK -- For years, the sport of volleyball in general, intercollegiate volleyball in particular, has been considered the private domain of the states of California and Hawaii. Although that emphasis is not likely to change, the domain is spreading.
Area fans, who had a chance to see the men's Final Four at George Mason University last spring, will get a chance to see four of the finest women's teams in the country as the National Collegiate Athletic Association brings its national tournament to the University of Maryland.
Tonight's semifinals at Cole Field House will send Louisiana State (34-6), an upset winner over Texas in last week's South Regional, against top-ranked UCLA (34-1), and the University of the Pacific (29-6) against second-ranked Nebraska (32-2). The two winners will play for the championship Saturday night.
This is the tournament's 10th anniversary, and only Texas in 1988 has marred the title parade of the California-Hawaii combine. Hawaii has won three, Pacific two and Southern Cal, UCLA and Long Beach State one each.
Now come Nebraska, given a legitimate chance of not only making the final, but winning it all, and underdog LSU.
In its trip to the nationals, the Cornhuskers ended Penn State's unbeaten streak at 44 games in a four-game regional final in Lincoln last week. This is the second straight year and third time in the past five years the team has reached this level. It made the final in 1986, losing, 3-0, to Pacific.
The All-America team was announced yesterday, and six of the 12 first-team choices will be in action this weekend. Four more from the second team are also here. That's a far cry from the first All-America team, a six-player squad in 1981 when the national program was in its infancy and there were far fewer scholarship teams.
This time, the selection committee reviewed 72 candidates, and such has been the growth and development of the sport that the group represented 26 states and nine foreign countries.
This growth is reflected by the athletes. John Dunning, head coach of Pacific, says: "Women's volleyball is played at a more physical and higher level now than ever before. In the Final Four of 1984, for instance, there were maybe two or three 6-footers. Now there are more than a dozen."
The national committee has also done its best to bring recognition to the sport, as it has placed the tournament outside of California/Hawaii five of the 10 times. This marks its first invasion of the East, however, as its previous sites were at Kentucky, Western Michigan, Indianapolis and Minnesota.
At the same time, the tournament field has expanded from 20 to 32.
A look at this year's teams:
UCLA -- The Bruins were semifinal losers the last two years, not winning a game when they were also ranked No. 1. This time, they bring in a solid physical team and a new mental outlook to go with a 31-match winning streak. Among the key players is left-handed sophomore outside hitter Natalie Williams, who has recorded at least 12 kills in 20 of her last 22 games.
"We're a better balanced team, not counting on one or two players as in the past," Senior Samantha Shaver said as coach Andy Banachowski puts it, "We've had to struggle, and we have handled the pressure better."
LSU -- The Tigers started slowly, losing four of their first eight. Another loss was a 3-0 sweep by Texas in Austin. Last Saturday, also in Austin, LSU stopped Texas, winning the fifth game, 17-15. Coach Scott Luster points out: "We made some changes after the first Texas game and we haven't lost since [13 in a row]. Our strength is our hitting, and when we block well, we're tough."
Nebraska -- The Cornhuskers scheduled a lot of tough games on the road and feel their pressure game was last week at home when the two-night crowd of more than 7,100 expected them to win. They went four games with Penn State, pulling away from 6-5 in the fourth to run off nine straight points. The leaders include senior setter Val Novak, the Big Eight Player of the Year.
Pacific -- Coach John Dunning says it has been a three-part season-- a 19-1 start, including wins over Stanford and Nebraska; a stretch of tough games they did not win; and the playoffs, where the team has continued a rise begun toward the end of the regular season. Krissy Fifer, at 6-foot-3 the tallest of 24 All-Americans named, is a dominating hitter.
Facts and figures
What: NCAA Women's Volleyball Championship
Where: Cole Field House, College Park
When: Tonight, 6:30; Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
The teams: UCLA vs. LSU, 6:30 p.m.; Nebraska vs. Pacific, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20 for the two sessions (at the door)
Directions: B-W Parkway to College Park exit; Route 193 (University Boulevard) west to Stadium Drive on left (about one mile beyond Route 1). Field house is next to Byrd Stadium.