It seems UCLA is good at any indoor sport that calls for a round ball and a net and was invented in western Massachusetts. In March the Bruins won their fourth straight NCAA basketball championship at College Park, Md. Last weekend, in their own campus arena, they won the inaugural NCAA volleyball tournament. In the final match against Cal State Long Beach, they leaped at the net to spike the ball at speeds up to 115 mph, dived all over the court to "dig" opponents' smashes and won 15-7, 15-4, 15-8.
The tournament was a giant step forward for volleyball in its native country (a Holyoke, Mass. YMCA director dreamed it up in 1895, four years after basketball was born in nearby Springfield). Popular—practically beloved—in Czechoslovakia and Brazil, it has attracted thousands of participants in America but hardly any spectators. Often those who play it here play it incorrectly, "throwing" the ball instead of hitting it a sharp blow and generally reducing the game to a pitty-pat activity slightly more tiring than croquet.
The Japanese, who like it fast and furious, added volleyball to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo; it stayed in at Mexico City in 1968 and it is now an Olympic fixture. This year it became the 17th NCAA championship sport, following trampoline, water polo and soccer, among others, and preceding lacrosse (scheduled for recognition in 1971).
UCLA and 28 other university-division schools have teams, and there are NAIA and college-division teams, too. Many more have volleyball on a club basis, which is how UCLA started 17 years ago.
In 1953 there was a busy volleyball court at the Delta Tau Delta house. Mike O'Hara, who became one of the country's best spikers, and five of his fraternity brothers got to thinking they were pretty good. They borrowed basketball jerseys from the athletic department, pooled their money, piled into a car and drove to Boys Town, Neb. for the U.S. Volleyball Association tournament. A more affluent member of another fraternity flew in to join them, so they had a substitute. They won the collegiate division.
In 1962 things had progressed: the team had a budget of $100, enough to buy eight volleyballs. That was the year Al Scates took over as coach (moonlighting from his job as a Beverly Hills phys ed teacher). He helped start a volleyball league, served as its commissioner, wrote a book on the sport and made an instructional film. Today he actually can give a few grants-in-aid, but the uniforms still look suspiciously like basketball hand-me-downs.
Scates has coached 19 All-Americas, including three spikers who made Olympic teams—Ernie Suwara, Larry Rundle and Keith Erickson, who now starts for the Los Angeles Lakers. Erickson, says Scates, was one of the few athletes who "could walk out after basketball season ended and play volleyball as if he'd never missed a minute of practice."
There was another excellent basketball-volleyball player on campus this season: John Vallely, renowned for his exploits in summer two-man tournaments at the beach, was a starting guard on two NCAA championship basketball teams. He was all set to come out for volleyball, and the team voted to let him do so, but he had hired an agent to negotiate a pro-basketball contract, which, according to NCAA rules, made him ineligible.
Still, it didn't seem as if the Bruins needed any more talent. They had a big hitter of Olympic caliber in Kirk Kilgour. Ed Becker was a superior blocker and almost as powerful a spiker as Kilgour. Dane Holtzman had done well in the Maccabiah Games and was considered a fine setter and back-court defensive man.
UCLA won the league title and lost only one match all year, to Cal State Long Beach in the Western regionals. For the first national tournament the NCAA committee decided to pick those two teams plus UC Santa Barbara, winner of last season's USVBA college division, and Ball State University of Muncie, Ind., champion of the 14-team Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association. For the most part, the Cardinals are a collection of good athletes recruited out of freshman phys ed classes and taught the game from scratch by Coach Don Shondell. All are paying their way through school. They beat Ohio State in their regional tournament to improve their record to 10-0, but in California they were like a bunch of Irishmen trying to beat Italians at boccie.
Ball Staters are from places like Erlanger, Ky. and Elkhart, Ind. There was no way they could beat guys from, say, Cal State Long Beach, out of Honolulu, Huntington Beach, Hermosa Beach, Seal Beach and, naturally, Long Beach itself. Kids who live by the California shore grow up with the sea breeze ruffling their sun-bleached hair and volleyballs bouncing off their hands. Setting, spiking and digging are more familiar terms to them than runs, hits and errors.
Some even have volleyball pedigrees. Holtzman, the tanned UCLA junior, has been playing since he was 4 years old. His mother Norma was a third-team All-America. His dad Bernie has been digging spikes out of the sand practically since the sport first moved west. Bernie put Dane in his first beach doubles tournament at age 11.
Not that volleyball is all they know. Dane recently started singing with a band at the Windjammer, on Sunset Strip, which is owned by an old teammate of his father's. UCLA's other setter, Ed Machado, who is as blond as California athletes are supposed to be, made the dean's list last quarter with a perfect 4.0 grade average and has won UCLA's surfing championship two straight years.
On Friday each team played the other in a round-robin to establish seeding. UCLA beat Santa Barbara and Ball State, and Long Beach did the same. They met in the final match of the day and the Bruins were extended before winning 15-12, 13-15, 15-2.
"We can't make that many mistakes and hope to beat UCLA," said Long Beach Coach Randy Sandefur. "We had poor ball handling and we didn't serve tough. They did. There seem to be some drafts in here and that new ball floats and jumps."
UCLA also used its flying-circus offense with good effect. Normally, the man in the middle of the front line sets to one of the spikers on either side. Scates borrowed a more complicated attack from the quick, aggressive Japanese, in which the small man in the back row—Holtzman or Machado—runs up to the front after the serve to be the setter. This frees three men to be potential spikers and confuses the blockers on the other side of the net. At the start of the season, it confused the Bruins, too.
"The most exciting offensive play in volleyball is a well-executed spike off a set placed only a foot or so above the net," says Scates. "This play was perfected by the Japanese to defeat the block of their taller opponents. It takes split-second timing between spiker and setter. The spiker is in the air before the setter touches the ball and should be at the top of his jump as the ball is clearing the tape."
In Saturday afternoon's games No. 1 UCLA disposed of No. 4 Santa Barbara (Ball State had upset the Gauchos Friday), and No. 2 Long Beach beat Ball State to set up the finals.
It was a match UCLA had prepared for. The Bruins came out for practice two months early and went through a rigorous conditioning program. Eddie Machado had spiked against a wall 15 minutes a day to improve his arm swing, since in Scates' system the setters have to hit, too. Others ran on the grass or up and down dormitory stairs.
The tournament was competing with UCLA's annual campus carnival, Mardi Gras, but 3,143 fans paid to see the finals. Not long ago Scates would have paid them, just so his underbudgeted orphans could have an audience.
Santa Barbara beat Ball State for third and then UCLA won handily as Kilgour's spikes dented Long Beach's side of the court in a dozen places and Holtzman, looking like his dad in the old days, dug up everything but the arena foundation.
"Dane is the best digger I've ever had at UCLA," said Scates. "He has the ability to read the spiker. He watches our blockers go up, eliminates certain possibilities and gets to the right spot."
The all-tournament team included Becker, Kilgour and Holtzman, who was voted the best player. After the awards were passed out, Scates was thrown in the shower. It might have been a premature soaking, though. Scates is trying to raise $2,700 to take his circus to Hawaii, site of the USVBA tournament. No college team has ever made it into the top three of the tough "open" division, but UCLA has that affinity for a round ball, a net and the dreams of men in western Massachusetts.