Where to begin doling out credit for USC's upset of Long Beach State in last Saturday's NCAA volleyball championship? Bryan (Poison) Ivie, the Trojans' All-America opposite hitter, was his usual toxic self in the final at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., with 35 kills, eight digs and five blocks. Skywalking middle blocker Kevin Shepard overcame a slow start—buoyed, no doubt, by the cheers of his stepfather, former Trojan spiker Tom Selleck—to chip in 19 kills and 11 digs. Unimposing setter Dan Greenbaum, who compensates in savvy for what he lacks in shoulders, fed his teammates creatively and unerringly. Still, the team's MVB—Most Valuable Bureaucrat—award has to go to Robert Newcomb, chairman of the NCAA Men's Volleyball Committee.
It was Newcomb's committee that decided to give USC the at-large final four berth, a decision that surprised even the Trojans. USC had been beaten by Long Beach in the semis of the Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Association tournament on April 26, leaving the Trojans 0-3 against the 49ers this season. Long Beach then beat UCLA in the WIVA finals to clinch an automatic NCAA tourney bid. Says USC coach Jim McLaughlin, "After we lost, I told the guys I thought the season was over."
There was good reason for that supposition. The at-large berth traditionally is given to a WIVA school, and at a preseason meeting, the WIVA coaches had agreed that it should as a matter of course go to the runner-up in the conference tournament. That would have been, in this case, the Bruins. But the NCAA is not bound by what the WIVA decides. Fully aware of this, McLaughlin spent 10 minutes after that loss to Long Beach bending Newcomb's ear, presumably pointing out that USC had beaten UCLA twice this season. Trojan athletic director Michael McGee followed up McLaughlin's filibuster with a letter to Newcomb's committee. After this intense—and to some WIVA coaches, distasteful—lobbying, the selection committee decided to invite USC.
Thinking that the Trojans' season was over after the semifinal loss to Long Beach, Ivie had attended to other important matters. "I jetted up to my girlfriend's place in Santa Barbara for the weekend," he said. "Then, on Sunday I got the good news."
The Bruins didn't see it that way. "The committee has reduced the sport to off-court politicking," said outraged UCLA coach Al Scates. Part of Scates's frustration stems from the knowledge that the WIVA's at-large berth in the final four is usually tantamount to a berth in the final two. In the 21 years that the NCAA has held the volleyball championship tournament, only two non-California teams have ever reached the finals: Ohio State in 1977 and Penn State in '82. Both lost. Sure enough, in Friday's semifinals, neither Rutgers-Newark, representing the East, nor Ball State, champions of the Midwest, gave evidence of having begun to close the talent gap between California and the rest of the country.
Asked when it was that he felt sure his team would beat Rutgers-Newark, Long Beach's Brett Winslow said with a straight face, "I think when it was 4-0 in the first game. That's when I knew we were in pretty good shape." After losing 15-4, the Scarlet Raiders experienced their brightest moment in the tournament: They took a 1-0 lead in Game 2. "All right," shouted coach Bob Bertucci, whose sense of humor never deserted him, "we've got the lead—let's see how long we can hold it!" Not long. The 49ers won that game 15-8 and the next one 15-5.
"Sooner or later a non-California team is going to win it," Ball State coach Don Shondell had said the day before his team faced USC in the semis. "Why shouldn't it happen this year?" Well, Coach, if you're still looking for reasons, start with Ivie. Much improved after having spent his summer touring with the U.S. national team, Ivie was the primary reason USC confounded the coaches who, in a preseason poll, picked the Trojans to finish fifth in the WIVA. But after spraining his right ankle in mid-April, Ivie missed virtually all of his team's last four matches. "It blew up pretty good," said Ivie. "It turned some serious shades of purple."
Against Ball State, his first action in three weeks, Ivie looked rusty in Game 1 but got stronger as the evening wore on. By the time USC had completed its sweep—15-4, 15-11 and 15-10—the 6'7" junior with the boyish grin and the bull-whip right arm had 21 kills, second to swing-hitter Nick Becker's 22.
"This is kind of like dying," said the long-suffering Shondell afterward. Shondell is now 0-11 in NCAA championship semifinals. "We really thought we could win this tournament," he said. So, what went wrong? Attacker Kevin Furnish, whom Shondell discovered in a phys-ed class last year—and who developed into one of the most efficient spikers in the country—notched a paltry six kills. Ball State's splendid setter, Chris Cooper, blamed a team-wide inferiority complex. "When we start thinking that way—us versus the guys from the West—it's like we don't feel legitimate, like we're not up to their caliber," he said. "We've got to start believing we do belong on the court with them."
Non-western players are at two distinct disadvantages: They don't play—and consequently can't be improved by—a regular-season schedule in the WIVA, by far the strongest conference in the country. Nor can they participate in the many two-man beach volleyball tournaments on the West Coast. The premium in that game—aside from not becoming distracted by scantily-clad spectators—is on digging spikes and passing, areas in which the western teams showed vast superiority.
But some Californians pass better than others. Before Saturday's final, McLaughlin instructed his charges to serve at outside hitters Brent Hilliard and Mark Kerins. Hilliard and Kerins are the 49ers' best finishers; by forcing them to receive serves, McLaughlin hoped to disrupt Long Beach's offense. It worked. Kerins in particular was thrown off, committing 10 hitting errors on 37 attempts.
With USC up two games to one and ahead 13-5 in Game 4, the 49ers became extremely stingy. It took the Trojans 24 side outs to get their 14th point, which came, at last, on a handsome stuff block by Becker. His spike moments later was too hot for Long Beach blocker Bob Kutsch to handle.
As the ball arced high off Kutsch's hand and out-of-bounds, the Trojans came together in a delirious scrum. Poor Jen-Kai Liu, USC's swing-hitter, was caught underfoot and nearly trampled. After the trophies were presented—Ivie was the tournament MVP—the Trojans began to celebrate with their pep band. The notes of the USC fight song died out, replaced by the crack of high fives. Theirs was that special joy reserved for the resurrected.