Unique paths but same destination
SAN ANTONIO -- UCLA sophomore Kelly Reeves was on the Bruins' sideline the last time her school won the NCAA women's volleyball title. Well technically speaking.
Her mother, former Bruins player and 1984 Olympic silver medalist Jeanne Beauprey Reeves, was an assistant coach for UCLA then, in December 1991. And she was pregnant with Kelly, who was born at UCLA Hospital the following April.
Of course, Reeves' memory doesn't go back that far, but she has been aware a long time that her mom did some big-time things in volleyball.
"When did I know she was a stud?" Reeves said of her mom, an All-American for the Bruins in 1982. "In some ways, I guess I always kind of knew. We have pictures in the house, of course, and the silver medal is hanging in there. I would just stare at it and think, 'Oh, my, gosh, I want to do that.'
"But I didn't really get involved in volleyball until I was 12. I had played a lot of other sports. So I went to a volleyball tryout, and I didn't know what I was doing but I fell in love with the sport. Then my mom was my coach for eight years. She's the one who's made me the person I am today."
Reeves, a starting outside hitter for the Bruins, is third on the team in kills (223) and second in digs (298). No. 9 seed UCLA faces No. 12 Florida State in the first national semifinal Thursday (ESPN2/ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
UCLA, which won NCAA titles in 1984, '90 and '91, is making its 12th Final Four visit, while Florida State has gotten this far for the first time. In a similar contrast, just as Reeves was more or less "born to be a Bruin," Florida State senior right-side hitter Rachael Morgan came to play for the Seminoles not even knowing what the ACC was.
"New Zealand at volleyball is not too hot," Morgan said with a cheerful frankness. "I've been playing for New Zealand since I was 13. If you play volleyball [with any aptitude] you're pretty much going to be a part of the national team from a young age. You're going to travel around and you're not going to win.
"So I knew after high school, that was going to be my volleyball career -- playing for New Zealand, trying to build it up and get noticed. Or I could come to the States and have more than I could ever imagine."
The first time Morgan was given a pair of team-issued socks upon arrival at Florida State, she couldn't believe her good fortune. Seminoles coach Chris Poole said that Morgan came up to him after her first practice with the squad and had tears in her eyes.
Not because the workout was too tough; just the opposite. She'd been craving such a challenge.
"She said, 'Thank you for the practice. I've never had a practice like that before,'" Poole said. "That right there told me that she was appreciative and wasn't taking anything for granted. We knew then we were going to have a special player just because of her attitude."
Now, Morgan -- who has 217 kills and 113 block assists this season -- gets to finish her career by doing something no ACC volleyball player ever had before this team of Seminoles: Competing in the national semifinals. Florida State made a breakthrough for its conference. And, yes, as a senior now, Morgan knows all about her conference and college volleyball in the United States.
In fact, now she serves as a mentor to younger players in New Zealand who are looking to follow her footsteps.
"When I go home at Christmas, I get emails from girls asking me how to do this," Morgan said. "I came in blind; I didn't even know what the NCAA was. I really just put my faith in the coaches and players. Now that I have that experience, I can help the girls at home choose good programs and take advantage of all the resources that would never be available in New Zealand."
When Morgan decided to come to Florida State, no one "in the know" about college volleyball would have called it a top program. UCLA, on the other hand, is consistently one of the best programs -- even if the Bruins haven't won an NCAA title in 20 years. They're still typically a team in the mix, and now under coach Michael Sealy, are back in the national semifinals for the first time since 2006.
But even with so much pointing her toward UCLA, Reeves -- who grew up in San Diego and often made the trip north to attend Bruins' sports events -- initially kept her college options open.
When she made a recruiting visit during a weekend when there was a basketball game going on between UCLA and USC, she felt so energized by the spirit of the rivalry. No use fighting it, Reeves thought, I really am meant to be a Bruin.
"I said, 'This is where I want to go, Mom,'" Reeves said. "And my mom still plays; she's very competitive. Even more than me, I think. We always talk about volleyball nonstop, calling and texting each other.
"She's still got it on the court, too. In club practice, she'd be in the back row, digging me. I would be like, 'Come on, Mom, this isn't fair!'"
Reeves does a video blog for UCLA's web site and enjoys cracking people up with her quirky personality. Once she and the Bruins hit the court, they'll be all business, as will Morgan and the Seminoles.
But Thursday, both Reeves and Morgan -- whose paths to San Antonio couldn't have been more different -- were all smiles.
"I'm kind of an odd bird, a little," Reeves said, grinning. "My teammates all laugh at me, but that makes my day. I love to make people laugh and provide that energy."
And Morgan gives you the impression that nobody's ever been more grateful for the chance just to play college volleyball.
"I knew [coming to the United States] was going to be the best decision," she said. "Over the past couple of years, I've tried to get involved with everything I can with the NCAA and ACC, because it is so exciting to me. I want to help FSU as much as they've helped me."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.