- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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USC's women's volleyball squad has subscribed to what seems an odd philosophy for a confidently optimistic group. But it's worked quite well.
"I think we really embraced Murphy's Law: If it can happen, it will," USC coach Mick Haley said of preparing for the postseason. "We planned on having the toughest road all the way through, to just take teams head-on and refuse to lose. So far, that's been our motto, and the players really kept focused with that."
The Trojans -- national semifinalists last year -- entered this season with the highest of expectations and never backed off.
Meanwhile, their Pac-12 rivals, UCLA, had to deal with the perplexing conundrum that the better the Bruins were regarded by outsiders, the less fun they seemed to have.
"As soon as we really started having some success, expectations came," UCLA coach Michael Sealy said. "And then we'd hit the skids."
At Illinois, coach Kevin Hambly's crew wasn't too fazed by the time it spent ranked No. 1, but the Illini also encountered some rough patches. Hambly felt that if they just rode it out, everything probably would be OK.
"When we were frustrated, we knew we could play a whole lot better," Hambly said. "The kids had a very honest, open discussion about, 'How do we move forward?' It wasn't some big 'Kumbaya' thing, but we found ourselves. We don't get very up and down at all; that's this group. Even when things were bad, they knew they could fix it."
If you'd said before the season began that USC, UCLA and Illinois would advance to the semifinals, no one would have been all that surprised. But what about the other participant? Florida State made real volleyball history, becoming the first ACC team since the NCAA tournament began in 1982 to get this far. That wasn't something even the most self-assured Seminoles -- coach Chris Poole chief among them -- were predicting.
"Many coaches go through great careers and yet do not get the opportunity to play in the final four," Poole said. "The best team on paper, having the most talent, doesn't always mean you'll win. You've got to have some breaks go your way."
And after 30 years of coaching a sport that Poole jokes he sort of "fell into," he's earned a few such breaks.
The "Road to San Antonio" comes from the east, west and center of the United States. Here's a look at how the Bruins and Seminoles, who meet in Thursday's first semifinal at the Alamodome, and the Illini and Trojans, who face off in the nightcap, all made it to the last stop of the 2011 volleyball season.
Another set of eyes
Sealy, a UCLA alum and former Bruins men's volleyball standout, replaced longtime women's coach Andy Banachowski in 2010. Sealy had been an assistant previously with the UCLA men and women, and at Hawaii.
In just his second season in charge of the Bruins women, he has UCLA in the semifinals for the 12th time. The Bruins have won three NCAA titles, although the last was in 1991. With a quick-set offense that spreads out its opportunities among players and is hard to defend, UCLA might add to that total this year.
The No. 9-seeded Bruins ended No. 8 Penn State's 26-match NCAA tournament winning streak with a 3-0 sweep in the semifinals of the Lexington (Ky.) Regional. Then UCLA defeated No. 1 seed Texas 3-1 in the final.
From a seeding perspective, these results "looked" like upsets but in reality, they were not a big surprise. The Bruins were one of the teams that spent the last month of the regular season ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll, although they did lose three of their last five matches entering the postseason.
What Sealy is most proud of is that his team -- led by junior Rachael Kidder's combined 41 kills in the regional matches -- figured out how to play its best at exactly the time it was needed. In part, Sealy credits some good advice from a very knowledgeable source. When he saw the Bruins struggling despite their talent, he got the wise idea to contact retired UCLA softball coach Sue Enquist before the NCAA tournament started.
A multiple national-championship winner as both a player and coach, Enquist came by volleyball practice and gave the Bruins some tips on how to keep things "light" and positive in the face of the pressure of expectations.
"I've always felt your biggest strength is your biggest weakness," Sealy said. "Our team is so in sync with each other and on the same page. That's a strength, but also a weakness because if we started going south, they'd all dive in the tank together. If a few people were off, it would pass around as a virus.
"Sue told them, 'The playoffs are not about being perfect.' Out of the 11 championships she won, she said the team was fantastic maybe for only one of them. But the ability to manage your failures in a game, your recovery system, is the most important thing."
Poole the program-builder
Poole, a native of Arkansas, was fulfilling a dream of coaching basketball when he started his career at his alma mater, Arkansas Tech, in 1983. He took an assistant's position with the volleyball team because it was part of the package to coach basketball.
In 1987, he moved to take over as head coach of Arkansas State's volleyball program, but admits he still hadn't fully clicked yet with the sport. However, in the summer of 1988, he was able to spend a few weeks with the U.S. men's squad as it prepared for the Seoul Olympics. That time being around keen volleyball minds made a world of difference.
"Before that, I was a guy who coached volleyball," Poole said. "But I came out of that experience as a volleyball coach."
It showed: From 1988-92, his Arkansas State teams went 205-30, winning five consecutive conference titles. That propelled into a job launching the Arkansas women's volleyball program, which didn't begin as a varsity sport for the Razorbacks until 1994.
He went 316-161 in Fayetteville, making nine NCAA tournament appearances. The Razorbacks advanced as far as the Sweet 16 once. But he felt one more move would be necessary to reach his highest goals, and saw Florida State as a "sleeping giant" in the ACC.
"The Seminoles were going to the NCAA tournament in every sport except volleyball," Poole said of his decision to take over in Tallahassee in 2008. "I felt like there were a lot of things in place for them to be successful. People asked me, 'Why would you want to leave Arkansas to try to rebuild again?' I said, 'I think I can build something potentially even greater.'"
He took some calculated risks by bringing aboard foreign players who were already in the United States at junior colleges or other Division I schools and were looking for different opportunities. He felt that if he could mesh them with the players already at FSU who needed a confidence boost, the Seminoles could progress quickly.
He was right; they were 31-3 and won their first regular-season ACC championship in 2009, advancing to the NCAA quarterfinals. This year, No. 12-seeded FSU went that one step further, making it to the semifinals after a five-set victory in the Minneapolis regional over No. 4 Iowa State.
"It was such a blessing in that moment when that match ended," Poole said. "To know the staff had worked hard, and the kids had worked hard to get this opportunity."
Two decades later, the Illini are back
You can hear it in Hambly's voice: He simply doesn't want this season to be over.
"They are pretty even-keeled and mellow," Hambly said of his players. "I've been with some teams where things start to go bad, you lose a couple of matches, and there's panic starting to set in.
"There was none of that. There was just this workmanlike attitude: What do we need to do to fix this? The thing I like most is that these kids understand it's a process, and that's going to be the hardest thing for me. That the process is going to end this week, and I'm not ready for that. We still feel like we're still getting better -- not just as players and with our system, but as people, too. It's been a really fun ride."
Illinois last made the volleyball final four in back-to-back seasons in 1987 and '88. The Illini lost both times in the semifinals.
Mike Hebert was the coach of the Illini then, and he led them to 11 NCAA tournament appearances before he went to Minnesota. Don Hardin had three Sweet 16 trips in his Illini coaching career from 1996-2008.
One of Hardin's players, Mary Coleman, finished her career in 1998 and later met and married Hambly. An Illini assistant since 2004, Hambly took over as Illinois' head coach in 2009.
Like Poole at Florida State, it hasn't taken long for Hambly to have a major impact.
"This is a really cool group," Hambly said of a team led by big hitters Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward, both seniors. "I haven't been around too many like this bunch."
The Illini are the best seed, at No. 3, that has advanced to this final four, doing so with 3-1 victories against fellow Big Ten team Ohio State and Florida, which was hosting the Gainesville Regional. They now face the team that Hambly says appears to have the best player in the nation this season: USC, with Alex Jupiter.
"They just play great volleyball, top to bottom," Hambly said of the Trojans. "They're a fun team to watch."
Persevering in 'paradise'
Televised shots of the scenery outside Hawaii's Stan Sheriff Center were idyllic-looking as always. Inside that building Friday, it wasn't very pleasant at all for USC. The Trojans, a No. 7 seed, were the bad guys against the beloved Rainbow Wahine, the No. 10 seed.
Pretty much no one on the planet, save the selection-committee members, thought these two teams should be meeting in the regional semifinals. USC was ranked No. 1 and Hawaii No. 3 in the last coaches' poll on Nov. 21.
Yet they had to face off in the Sweet 16, and the result was the most-thrilling, well-played match of the tournament thus far -- and one that may not be topped in San Antonio.
And speaking of planets -- sorry, we just had to do that -- Jupiter was out of this world in Hawaii.
"She raised her game a whole other level," USC's Haley said. "She's been a great team player, she always does her job, but I really felt like this is the first time that Alex just felt compelled to take over a match."
Alex Jupiter did that twice. In the Trojans' 19-25, 29-27, 19-25, 25-23, 15-12 victory over Hawaii, Jupiter had 33 kills and 26 digs. On Saturday, facing a Pepperdine team that had swept Kansas State in the semis, Jupiter and USC had to battle through fatigue.
But they did it, sparked by another masterful match from setter Kendall Bateman, a greatly needed lift off the bench from freshman middle blocker Hannah Schraer (who didn't play against Hawaii and had fresher legs at the net), libero Natalie Hagglund's saving digs, and another gem from Jupiter. The senior from Paris, France, had 17 kills and a career-high 29 digs in the Trojans' 25-16, 26-28, 19-25, 25-19, 15-10 victory over a very good Waves squad.
When USC fell behind two sets to one and still seemed sluggish during the potentially deciding fourth set, Haley acknowledged he was concerned that the Trojans might have run out of gas.
But they rallied, and afterward Jupiter -- whose English is excellent -- was initially a little stumped by the American phrase "hit the wall." As in, had she felt during the match that the Trojans were at or near that point?
"It means get tired," Haley whispered to her.
"Yeah, I guess we did hit the wall," Jupiter said. "But we just had to keep fighting through it. I'm very proud of my team."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.