The public address announcer at St. John Arena boomed out the
names of the happy members of the NCAA-champion men's volleyball
team last Saturday night, but the players on UCLA did not pay
attention. This was because, shock of shocks, they were not
happy members of the NCAA-champion men's volleyball team.
The Bruins sat in a tableau of discomfort as the awards ceremony
took place in front of them. Four starters had towels over their
heads, faces hidden. Paul Nihipali, the one senior starter, the
All-America, stared straight ahead, looking at something only he
could see, maybe a thousand miles away. Sophomore Danny Farmer,
who's also a wide receiver on the football team, lay on his
back, staring at the ceiling.
"And will the captains from Stanford step forward to accept the
trophy...." the P.A. announcer boomed.
Stanford. This did not seem right to the Bruins. Sure, maybe the
Cardinal should have been favored; Stanford's team was filled
with seniors and talent, built to climb this particular hill.
Sure, the young UCLA team had lost in three games to the
Cardinal only a week ago at home in Pauley Pavilion. So what?
This was the NCAA final. The Bruins always win the NCAA final.
May 11, 1997
"What should I have done differently?" wondered UCLA coach Al
Scates, whose teams had won the last two titles, three of the
last four and 16 of the 27 in NCAA history. "If I'd had 'em set
up the quick hitter a couple of times, we would have won that
fifth game. I didn't want to preordain the action, wanted to let
it flow, but I should have set up the quick hitter. I should
have done it."
The Bruins lost the first two games and then climbed back to win
the next two to send the match into the rapid-fire final game,
in which a point is scored on anybody's serve. Final Jeopardy.
UCLA had won four of these final games in a row in its 24-4
season, most recently in its semifinal victory over Penn State
last Thursday night in this same building on the Ohio State
The score was 13-13 now; 15 points were needed to win. Nihipali
was serving. The Bruins' strategy in this match was to serve the
ball low and to the right of Stanford's Matt Fuerbringer, to
keep it away from All-America outside hitter and 1996 Olympian
Mike Lambert. Nihipali served, low and away. Too low. Into the
net. The Cardinal, now ahead 14-13, served. On the return UCLA
setter Brandon Taliaferro pumped the ball high into the air for
a kill by Nihipali. Fuerbringer and Mike Hoefer, expecting the
play, met the attempted kill at the net and sent the ball back
faster than it arrived. End of set, match, UCLA. Stanford was
the men's NCAA champion for the first time.
"It would have been easy for us to go in the tank after losing
those first two sets, but we didn't," said Scates, who with a
win would have broken his tie with former Houston golf coach
Dave Williams for the most NCAA championships won by a coach in
a single sport. (Both have 16.) "I was really proud of that. In
the end, though, it's a bitter pill to swallow. I guess we can't
win all the time."
The Cardinal players whooped and posed for pictures, some
wearing Hawaiian garlands provided by Lambert's mother. The
Bruins slowly, slowly started to gather themselves to head back
to their rooms at the Holiday Inn. Scates wore a lucky green
suit that he had worn for the last two NCAA titles. He said he
would never wear it again.
"What happened on those final two points?" a reporter asked
"I served one into the net, and my next shot was blocked," he
replied in a firm, sad voice.
The unthinkable, alas, was thinkable. A dynasty could have a bad