To UMBC's O'Brien, team hits home before records 2,000 kills not as important as 19 wins

November 05, 1993|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff Writer

Kelly O'Brien's wide-eyed reaction was typical.

When told she was about to become the 18th volleyball player in NCAA Division I history to record 2,000 career kills, O'Brien said she found it hard to believe. Then again, while piling up four years of outstanding matches at UMBC, she never cared much for record books.

Two days later at Towson State, O'Brien pounded No. 2,000 over the net and promptly received the first standing ovation of her life. She says she will cherish that moment, although the thing that most satisfied her was how her 23 kills helped UMBC win an important match.

As the Retrievers (19-10) wind down their regular season and turn their focus to winning their first Big South Conference championship, O'Brien is concluding the highlight reel that has defined her college career. And no one sounds more surprised at the attention she has earned than O'Brien.

"My father always said that I could play with them [college players], but I didn't see that. I'm still amazed," O'Brien says.

"I didn't know what I was capable of when I came here. I did have a lot of experiences that prepared me for this, like playing [Capital] club ball. But I didn't know what to expect coming to a Division I school. I guess my college years are my peak years."

Not that O'Brien came out of nowhere to become the greatest hitter in UMBC history. But coming out of Wootton High School in Montgomery County, she was a steady, unspectacular middle hitter surrounded by stars. The Patriots won seven straight state championships, the last four while O'Brien was there.

UMBC coach Catherine Lavery remembers scouting Wootton when O'Brien was a senior. Lavery was working as an assistant at West Virginia, and later would be named to her first head coaching job at UMBC, which had suffered four losing seasons in its first four seasons at Division I.

"I went there to watch two other [Wootton] players, but I liked Kelly's height [5 feet 11], her quickness, her arm swing and her attitude," Lavery said. "She needed a lot of work, but she had great reflexes. I knew she didn't belong in the middle."

And once she met Lavery, O'Brien had found the right college coach. She even turned down a full scholarship to Temple, and probably would have followed Lavery to West Virginia, before accepting a partial ride to UMBC. With that, a friendship and a partnership was born.

Their rookie years were memorable. With O'Brien leading the offense from the outside, UMBC went 23-15. O'Brien won the East Coast Conference Rookie of the Year award; Lavery was named Coach of the Year. That started a trend. Lavery won the award the next two years. O'Brien made the all-conference first team as a sophomore, the same year she set the school record for career kills.

Last year, O'Brien earned Big South Player of the Year recognition, leading the Retrievers to an 18-16 record. This year, teamed with junior setter Judy Jackson, a transfer from Hofstra, she leads the conference with 4.62 kills per game in Big South play. She already has had two 30-kill matches this year.

"Judy is one of the best setters I've ever had," O'Brien says. "I don'tlet it [the accolades] get to my head. I don't want my teammates to feel that I'm taking the glory and gloating about it. All I want to do is win the game and win our conference and win everything."

O'Brien has done a bit of everything on the court. Besides her 2,068 kills -- nearly twice the number of the nearest UMBC player -- she is second in school history in blocks (236), second in digs (1,359) and fourth in service aces (171).

"She [O'Brien] is the reason we've done so well," Lavery says. "She took my program from a low level to a very high level. And she's like a daughter to me. It's going to be tough saying goodbye to Kelly."

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