As she trotted off the court after leading Long Beach State to
the NCAA women's volleyball title last Saturday, senior setter
Misty May kept her eyes straight ahead and locked on the shiny
new championship trophy that she held in her hands. Had she
stopped for a moment and looked into the stands at Wisconsin's
Kohl Center, May would have espied something even more
spectacular. All around the arena, from tiny girls dressed in
Green Bay Packers jackets to teenagers in tie-dyed T-shirts to
grandmothers in thick wool sweaters, everyone seemed to have her
hair up in pigtails, just like May's.
Originally, May's trademark 'do was nothing more than a way to
keep her hair out of her eyes during matches, but over the last
two seasons, as May developed into perhaps the best setter in the
history of women's college volleyball, May's pigtails, like her
hair-raising skills, seemed to transcend the game. Dual plaits
are now all the rage in Long Beach, where it isn't unusual to see
hundreds of kids wearing pigtails at 49ers' home games.
"The biggest compliment a player can have is when kids want to be
like them," says Long Beach State assistant coach Debbie Green, a
two-time Olympian and Hall of Fame setter. "Misty has taken
setting to a new level. She does it all, and she puts on a show.
She's entertaining. There isn't anyone who comes close to her
level of play."
In volleyball, setters run the show much as a point guard does in
basketball. But to understand May's court presence you have to
imagine a point guard who also leads her team in scoring, blocks
and rebounds, and who has a quirky sense of humor to boot. In
Saturday's title match May, the volleyball coaches' player of the
year this season and last, had 70 assists, 11 digs and nine kills
while setting an NCAA tournament record with 20 service aces as
she led Long Beach State to a 3-2 win over Penn State. The true
measure of her dominance came during the final game, in which the
49ers trailed 7-2. May had either an assist or a kill on all but
three of Long Beach State's 15 points. That allowed the 49ers
(36-0) to become the first NCAA women's volleyball team to finish
the season undefeated.
"Misty is the Magic Johnson or Wayne Gretzky of volleyball,"
says Long Beach State coach Brian Gimmillaro, who has now won
three NCAA titles since 1989. "She does everything, and she does
it with more creativity and imagination than anyone who came
before her. She is the center and the future of this sport. And
that's good. What volleyball needs right now is a hero."
Indeed, just six years after winning the bronze medal at the
Barcelona Olympics, the American women's team is in jeopardy of
not qualifying for the 2000 Games after failing to get out of
first-round pool play at this year's world championships. The
NCAA Final Four was a shot in the arm that the U.S. desperately
needed. A record crowd of 13,194 watched a classic five-game
final featuring two undefeated teams with dramatically different
styles and a palpable dislike for one another.
Using an up-tempo approach, the 49ers throttled the more
methodical Nittany Lions 15-3, 15-10 in the first two games.
Penn State battled back to a 2-2 tie behind the play of junior
middle hitter Lauren Cacciamani, who had 33 kills in the final
and earned Final Four co-MVP honors with May. (As for the teams'
divergent styles, between points Cacciamani whispered prayers to
herself while the 49ers used the time to trash-talk through the
But as Penn State tired and it became clear that the Nittany
Lions could not stop Long Beach State's lefthanded jackhammer,
Veronica Walls (19 kills), May waited for her opening and then
took over the match. "That's what volleyball is supposed to be, a
nonstop dogfight," she said afterward. "Some teams fold, but if
you love the sport, then you love those situations. It's not more
pressure. It's more fun."
Whether it's a five-point deficit in the final game of the
championship match or the future of an entire sport, pressure
doesn't seem to bother May, a 5'9" free spirit from Costa Mesa,
Calif., who grew up playing volleyball on the beach alongside
her father, Butch, a member of the 1968 Olympic volleyball team.
After last Saturday's final, in a room off the lobby of the Kohl
Center, May opened her comments to the 49ers' boosters by
saying, "When I got drug-tested on Thursday, I couldn't go, but
boy do I have to go now!"
The room, which overlooked the court, was filled with players
and their families, coaches, school administrators and a number
of teenage fans, some in pigtails and others holding signs that
read WE LOVE MISTY. Everyone wanted to hold on to the moment for
as long as possible, so pizza was brought in and the floor was
opened for comments about the 49ers' magical season. One fan
joked that the five-game final was just the team's way of
keeping things interesting. It was also pointed out that the
only team the 49ers lost to all year was the Long Beach State B
squad. Gimmillaro then stepped forward and shared with the crowd
what he had said to the team in the locker room following the
match. "I told the players that this is the greatest team of all
time," he said. "From now on every team that follows will be
compared with this team."
That turned out to be the perfect end to a perfect season.