No surprise in this final matchup
SAN ANTONIO -- Illinois has never reached this pinnacle of women's volleyball before. UCLA has, but it last happened 17 years ago. Yet what fans will see Saturday when they meet for the NCAA championship are two teams that no one is surprised to have here.
Both had stretches of being ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll during the regular season. Both have multiple weapons. Those of Illinois were on display in an entertaining, high-level 3-2 victory over USC in the semifinals.
Meanwhile, the Bruins didn't have to stretch themselves in their 3-0 sweep against Florida State in Thursday's semis. But rest assured, UCLA has all the pieces, too, as the Bruins' regional victories against defending champion Penn State and No. 1 seed Texas showed.
"I think they're probably the best passing team we've seen this year," Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said of the Bruins. "They're also a very good serving team, and they do things very tactically. They run a fast offense."
Indeed, the Bruins pretty much ran the Seminoles out of the Alamodome, led by 21 kills from junior Rachael Kidder. Effective passing and serving to volleyball coaches is like "hitting fairways and greens" to golfers: things that sound obvious and simplistic, but are very hard to do well consistently.
The Bruins excel at the basics, and so do the Illini. But both also have the ability to make dazzling plays. Another way the squads are alike is that they represent their schools' respective states. There are 12 Californians playing for the Bruins, and 12 players from Illinois on the Illini's roster.
And one more similarity: Both teams are coached by former men's college players who haven't been running their programs very long but already are competing for the NCAA title.
"It's surreal," said UCLA coach Michael Sealy, who has the Bruins back in the championship match for the first time since 1994. "There's only one more volleyball game this year, and we're actually playing in it. I think the magnitude of it -- if there is a magnitude -- just hasn't set in yet."
Sealy played at UCLA from 1990 to 1993, and as an All-American setter helped the Bruins win the 1993 men's national championship. Hambly -- like Sealy a native of California -- played at BYU from 1992 to 1995. They crossed paths while in college and when both spent time on a U.S. national team that toured Italy.
They're not close friends, but they get along fine and represent a new generation of top-level coaches. Sealy had previously been an assistant at UCLA and Hawaii before taking over the Bruins' women's squad in 2010.
Hambly was an assistant at UNLV, for the U.S. Olympic team, and at Illinois. Then he became the Illini's head coach in 2009. Illinois made the national semifinals in 1987 and '88, but this is its first national-championship match.
"It's nice to see another young coach make it and have a breakthrough with his team," Hambly said of Sealy. "I think he feels the same way. It's up to our generation of coaches to try to carry the torch both with leadership and to understand what all this is about. This is faster, maybe, than people might have expected for us to be in this position."
Both are able to relate well to their players even if they do have slightly different styles. Hambly's wife is a former volleyball player at Illinois, and they have two young daughters. He has a calm, measured way of speaking. He likes cerebral players and appreciates discussions on all kinds of topics.
"We all meet with Kevin every other week individually and can talk about what's going on in life, school and volleyball," Illinois junior middle blocker Erin Johnson said. "It's nice our coaches really care about us becoming well-rounded people."
Sealy has a quick, sarcastic wit, and his sense of humor is a part of how he communicates with players.
For example, about bubbly sophomore outside hitter Kelly Reeves, Sealy said, "She's all unicorns and rainbows. I think she sees about four unicorns a day, and rainbows wherever she looks. In a good way."
Sealy also knows how to inspire confidence in his team, including with key transfers Lauren Van Orden, a senior setter, and Tabi Love, a junior outside hitter.
"I would say he has been great with me," said Love, who transferred from Minnesota. "Coming in and being new again [in a program], I struggled finding my role. Through all that, I looked to him for advice. I think we're similar in a lot of ways, in talking about things he struggled with as a player, too."
Just as Van Orden and Love have been big keys to UCLA, a transfer player also has had a huge impact at Illinois. Senior outside hitter Colleen Ward, who is from suburban Chicago, played her first two seasons at Florida before returning to her home state and the Illini.
"When she [transferred], I came to our team and said, 'We're in the mix, we've got a shot,'" Hambly said, referring to a national championship.
That estimation of Ward's impact has proved true. It was on Ward's intimidating and tricky-to-read jump serve that the Illini won five consecutive points to close out the third set against USC on Thursday. She finished the night with 27 kills plus 22 digs.
But the Illini won't have to rely completely on her, just as the Bruins don't have to depend too much on any one player.
"I think we match up really well with them," Van Orden said. "I was really impressed with their ball control [in the semifinals], and I feel like we're similar in that sense, too. It will be a good fight."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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