COLLEGE PARK -- Not so long ago, women's volleyball was a game for those of average height and size, as Pacific coach John Dunning remembers.
When he won his first NCAA championship in 1985, Dunning's squad had just one player who was 6 feet tall.
But now, as the fifth-ranked Tigers prepare to join Nebraska, Louisiana State and UCLA tonight in the volleyball Final Four at Maryland's Cole Field House, Dunning is impressed by the number of giants who come to the nets and how well they play.
"They are bigger and more acrobatic," said Dunning. "The people who are big now are not only big, but they're big and they cover the court."
Indeed, 28 players among the four finalists are 6 feet or taller and the skill level of the players has certainly brought increased attention and interest to the sport.
"The level of play is significantly higher than it has been," said Dunning. "It has to be the fastest growing sport."
Dunning's Pacific squad (29-6) and second-ranked Nebraska (32-2), their semifinal opponent (8:30 p.m.), are the biggest of the four teams.
They are remarkably similar, and although the Tigers beat Nebraska in a four-set match earlier this season, neither Dunning nor his players are expecting an edge.
"For them, it [the earlier match] might be an advantage," said Cathey Scotlan, a 6-1 senior middle blocker. "They might have more incentive to want to beat us. The earlier match is far enough in the past for us that we have to start over."
"We're both big, we both can play defense and pass and if we both do that, it could be a great match," said Dunning.
For the Cornhuskers, who advanced to the title game last year, before losing to Long Beach State, just getting to the Final Four is not enough.
"Last year, we wanted to make it, and anything else was a bonus," said Becki Bolli, a 5-8 senior defensive specialist. "This year, we set our goal to win the national championship. That's been the underlying thing and anything less would be a letdown."
The 6:30 semifinal, between top-ranked UCLA (34-1) and 17th-ranked LSU (34-6), matches the Tigers' youthful exuberance against the experience of the Bruins.
UCLA is making its third straight Final Four appearance as a No. 1 team, but it hasn't won a title since 1984.
To cope with the notion that the Bruins might again fold under pressure, UCLA coach Andy Banachowski hired a sports psychologist, Bill Parham, to meet with the team.
"We've struggled a lot this year and this team has worked together a lot," said Banachowski. "They've come to enjoy that they can count on each other."
LSU is making its first appearance in the Final Four, and the Tigers, who have just three seniors, none of whom start, are hoping to ride a streak of momentum that has seen them win 32 of their last 34 matches after a 4-4 start.
"We have not had to play at a high level and sustain it for a long period of time and they [UCLA] have and that's an advantage," said LSU coach J. Scott Luster.
"If we are able to focus and maintain a high level of play for a long period of time, the history might come into play."