UCLA captures volleyball title
SAN ANTONIO -- UCLA's Rachael Kidder is a Southern California girl who loves country music and watching NASCAR races. Lauren Van Orden is a Colorado native who enjoys reading about military strategy and is inspired by Tim Tebow because she knows what it's like to be underestimated.
Kelly Reeves wanted to be the next Mia Hamm when she was little but grew up to be a UCLA volleyball player -- just like her mom was. Reeves is the zaniest of the Bruins, as demonstrated by her answer to the question of what frightens her most.
"I don't like failing," she said. "And death kind of scares me, too."
These are just some of the personalities of the new national champions of women's volleyball, as the NCAA title returns to the Pac-12 after a five-year absence. UCLA beat Illinois 3-1 Saturday after three very close sets and one blowout at the Alamodome. And personality was a big part of this Bruins team, which brings the women's volleyball title back to Westwood for the first time since 1991 -- when Reeves' mom, then a UCLA assistant, was pregnant with her.
"I told the girls coming here that sooner or later, the national champion aura wears off," said UCLA coach Michael Sealy, who won a men's volleyball NCAA title as a Bruins player in 1993. "When you think back about this season, you may remember the match and the last point, but you're really going to remember the bus rides.
"You're going to remember Kelly Reeves, and did she really say that kind of stuff? It's the human element of what we created, the experience we shared."
True, but this also was just a darn fine collection of volleyball players who struggled at times during the season to understand how good they were. UCLA had the No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament, but don't let that fool you. USC coach Mick Haley, whose team was ranked No. 1 in the last coaches' poll, said he thought the Bruins were the best team his squad had faced all year.
And the Bruins and Trojans might have met a third time -- for all the marbles on Saturday -- except Illinois didn't let that happen.
The No. 3 seed Illini, trying to follow Penn State's four consecutive NCAA titles and win another for the Big Ten, had a gutsy 3-2 victory over the Trojans in the semifinals. Sealy said that after seeing that match, he thought the Illini were the best team he'd seen this season.
Illinois showed its mettle in the title match, too. UCLA won the first set 25-23. Then the Bruins took a 20-13 second-set lead, which against a lot of teams would be an insurmountable lead. It looked as if it might be another short night for the Bruins, just as their 3-0 semifinal win against Florida State was.
But the Illini surged back, thanks to a stretch in which they dominated the net. That, combined with the Bruins' passing losing its crispness, led to a huge Illinois rally. The Illini won the set 25-23 to tie the match.
In the third set, the Illini maintained a bit of that momentum -- right up until they had set point. With Illinois up 24-22, the Bruins won four consecutive points on a kill by Kidder, two from Tabi Love and an attack error by Illinois' Erin Johnson. That gave the Bruins a 26-24 win.
"When we went to the locker room after the second set, we said, 'We're just going to have fun,'" Kidder said of how the Bruins stayed loose and didn't let that set getting away bother them.
Love added, "I think it would have been easy to get fragile because we were up by so much and they came back. But our unity just really drove us."
The Bruins' third-set win seemed to take the wind out of the Illini's sails. They were on the verge of a 2-1 lead, but instead that edge went to UCLA.
"When they got the touches, they converted them into good swings," Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said of the Bruins. "We got touches and didn't convert them, or we didn't make the plays. And I thought Kelly Reeves and Bojana [Todorovic] were flying all over the place making plays and creating things for them."
In the fourth set, the Bruins simply dominated in all aspects, winning 25-16. Kidder was named the most outstanding player, finishing Saturday with 20 kills and eight digs. Love had 14 kills, and Van Orden 17 digs and five block assists. Zoe Nightingale had 10 block assists for the Bruins.
In the fourth set, the Illini looked as if they'd finally run out of gas after a brilliant season in which Illinois gained its first No. 1 ranking in the AVCA poll, energized the Champaign-Urbana community and made the program's first Final Four since 1988.
"I've never been around a group of people who were more committed to each other or more committed to the process," Hambly said. "I just love these guys."
Hambly is in his third season with the Illini. His counterpart Sealy has been in charge of the Bruins' program for two years. Both are former college men's players.
Sealy went to UCLA as a freshman with hopes for multiple national championships but didn't win one his first three years. He said that during his senior year, neither he nor his teammates ever talked about winning it all. They simply stayed laser-focused on each day. And when it was all over, the title was theirs.
Nearly two decades later as a coach, he advised his Bruins to think the same way. And it worked.
"Coming into this postseason, everything felt kind of 'bonus' for us," Van Orden said. "I felt we were just really thinking [Saturday] that this is just another match. It was just one more day, one more game you had to play."
But it was the biggest day of all this season -- the one that brought UCLA its fourth women's volleyball NCAA championship.
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.