En route from their hotel to Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, site of last Saturday's NCAA women's volleyball championship, a handful of UCLA players filled their, van with song. First they belted out Salt-N-Pepa's Expression; then they followed it up with the Aretha Franklin hit Respect. Upon arrival at Cole, the relaxed Bruins expressed themselves by dancing together in the team locker room, and when it came time for their best routine, they earned plenty of respect with their volleyball, making quick work of the University of the Pacific, 3-0, for a fifth national title.
Not that Pacific played poorly. It was simply its wretched misfortune to confront the Bruins at the top of their form and in the best of humor. This was true even of Andy Banachowski, the Bruin coach for the past 24 years, whose woebegone, basset-hound demeanor has led some of his players to nickname him Droopy. "I'm a pretty serious guy," says Banachowski, who entered this season without two pretty serious players—1989 first-team All-Americas Daiva Tomkus, lost to graduation, and Elaine Youngs, lost to a knee injury.
Still, any team with Natalie Williams on the flank need never despair. Only a sophomore, the 6'1" Williams is already the most impressive player in the college ranks—and she didn't even take up the sport until she was a ninth-grader at Taylorsville (Utah) High. She is the daughter of former NBA guard Nate Williams and will also play basketball for UCLA this season. On the volleyball court Natalie is quick, powerful and remarkably focused. "She plays with so much intensity, she's always about ready to pop," says Bruin middle blocker Marissa Hatchett. Off the court, Williams is a more gentle spirit. When the team traveled north to play Oregon, she spent her free time gathering walnuts to take back to the squirrels that populate the UCLA campus. "Animals really like me," says Williams, who intends to be a veterinarian after she graduates. "I talk to them like little babies, and they eat out of my hand."
So does her coach. "Natalie's a pretty special kid," says Banachowski, "and probably even a better player."
The first semifinal match on Thursday night pitted UCLA against LSU. In the previous two years, the Bruins came into the NCAAs ranked No. 1 but crumbled under the pressure and were knocked off in the semis. So as this year's tournament approached with the Bruins once again atop the polls, Banachowski sought counseling. In the weeks preceding the tournament, the entire UCLA squad met regularly in group sessions with a psychologist who helped them to lighten up by turning off the lights; in the dark, Dr. William Parham led them through a series of muscle-relaxing exercises. But it was a more informal gathering on Thanksgiving at the home of their manager, LuAnn Solari, that really served to unify and inspire the Bruins.
Solari's family lives in Linden, a farming community near Stockton, Calif., the site of an important tournament that weekend. After dinner, the Bruins went for a hayride that ended at dusk in the middle of an old peach orchard. A large bonfire was built, and the players joined hands and sang inspirational songs while dancing around the flames. That Saturday they won the tournament, rebounding from a 1-2 deficit in the final to beat Pacific in five games. When things got tense on court, someone would yell, "Feel the fire!" After that win, the players started shouting the phrase in every pregame huddle.
Against LSU, the Bruins encountered a different kind of heat from the 6'2" Tiger All-America middle blocker, Monique Adams. Early in the match, play was ragged and both teams were hesitant, save when Adams would soar above the net for crunching kills deserving of comic strip punctuation: Biff! Sock!! Pow!!! "I've never seen anybody hit that hard," said UCLA outside hitter Jenny Evans. "Of course, I'm not on the other side when Natalie's hitting."
Adams is very talented, but she is still a one-dimensional power player, not yet on the level of Williams, who mixes strength with subtlety. As the match progressed, the UCLA defense adjusted. Sparked by Samantha Shaver, the Bruins' alltime leader in digs, UCLA began to counter Adams's blows. Williams, meanwhile, punished the Tigers with jump serves that flew over the front line and then dipped suddenly, and she executed difficult back-row kills and showed a deft touch with both hands at the net. By drawing a crowd of blockers, Williams opened shooting alleys for Evans, another Bruin All-America, whose 17 kills helped UCLA to a 15-13, 15-10, 15-6 victory.
Nebraska was a slight favorite over the Pacific Tigers in the evening's second match. Cornhusker coach Terry Pettit is a cerebral fellow who at various times has wired players with walkie-talkies during practice to understand their thought processes better, has taught his charges Navajo sayings to enhance group unity, and has studied The Ail of War, a classic Chinese military text, in the hope of strengthening the Husker attack. Pettit has also spent time during the past three years writing an epic prose poem based on a volleyball season. After watching Pacific outside hitters Krissy Fifer and Katy Eldridge destroy his team on Thursday, he may consider titling it The Killiad.
Both teams started slowly, and all the side outs didn't sit well with one Pacific fan, a large woman dressed head to toe in orange who had an unfortunate penchant for hoisting herself into the aisle, frantically wiggling her hips and waving an orange hankie in an effort to motivate her Tigers. Embossed on the back of her generous sweatshirt was LOVE THAT ORANGE WALL; she was ultimately rewarded when the Pacific front line of Fifer (6'3"), middle blocker Cathey Scotlan (6'1") and setter Melanie Beckenhauer (6 feet) took charge.
Fifer and Beckenhauer, both All-Americas, are Los Altos (Calif.) High graduates who have played together for the past eight years. The familiarity was evident as Beckenhauer's precise feeds met Fifer at the peak of her leaps. When it was all over, Fifer had 21 kills and a gaudy .514 hitting percentage, and the Tigers had a 15-13, 11-15, 15-9, 15-12 win.
But in Saturday night's final, matters were different. UCLA sprinted to a 7-1 lead before Fifer, who plays only in front-row rotations, could take the floor. And even Fifer couldn't budge the Bruin front line and the tenacious blocking of Williams and Hatchett. Before long, Pacific looked drained. "They didn't smile," said Shaver. "That was strange for them. They usually laugh blocks off. They seemed tense, very nervous." So did the Tigers' biggest fan, who, perhaps in premonition, had worn only black on this night—and was quiet as a kitten.
With defensive specialist Traci Broadway's floating serves finding the seams and Holly McPeak setting beautifully, the Bruins cruised to victory, 15-9, 15-12, 15-7. When an Evans kill gave UCLA its first title in six years, the Bruins collapsed into a team hug and emerged with tear-streaked faces. Even the dour Banachowski permitted himself a little emoting. "This year's team is not as dominating physically as past UCLA teams," he said. "But from the standpoint of being a team, this group is the best I've ever had." Then he raised his hound-dog eyes and, ever so briefly, cracked a grin.