Rachael Kidder, UCLA aim to repeat

Jeff Huehn

A 6-foot-3 outside hitter, Rachael Kidder was named the NCAA tournament's most outstanding player as UCLA won the national championship last year.

Sure, UCLA senior Rachael Kidder has watched the video of last season's NCAA final against Illinois. But not because she wants to relive the glory of the Bruins' national championship.

"When I watch it now, I'm trying to see what I did wrong," said Kidder, an outside hitter who didn't make many mistakes as the 2011 NCAA tournament's most outstanding player. "I keep rewinding things and looking at my mistakes. I'm not watching it for the excitement of seeing us win again."

But there is somebody at her home in Moorpark, Calif., who does watch the match to exult in the victory: her proud papa, John Kidder. A former UCLA offensive lineman who helped protect quarterback Troy Aikman in the 1980s, John is a Bruin for life.

He and Rachael's grandfather made the 20-hour drive from California to San Antonio last December for the Final Four, then watched the Bruins beat Florida State and Illinois for the program's first women's volleyball championship since 1991.

About the only way it could have been any better for John, who is a high school football coach, is if loathed rival Southern Cal had been UCLA's victim in the final. Alas, the Trojans lost in the semis to the Illini.

"My dad doesn't get emotional ever; I think I've seen him cry maybe a couple of times in my whole life," Kidder said. "But he was emotional when we won, and seeing how proud he was, it was an awesome feeling. He had a few tears in his eyes."

She added with a laugh, "He doesn't want me to say that, but he did."

AP Photo/The Lexington Herald-Leader/Mark Cornelison

Rachael Kidder and the Bruins are ranked No. 1, but rather than feeling pressure, they're taking a businesslike approach to defending their title.

A willowy 6-foot-3, Kidder is not built like her offensive lineman dad. But she's got the same kind of toughness. And she's definitely her own person. There may not be a lot of California-native volleyball players who love NASCAR and country music, but Kidder does.

She enjoyed going to Fontana, Calif., and watching her favorite driver, Tony Stewart, win the Sprint Cup race in March. The only downside was that the race was rain-shortened. (It never rains in Southern California, indeed.)

The past year has been mostly sunshine for Kidder, who is preparing for a senior year in which the Bruins are the preseason No. 1 and have a target on their backs.

Or do they?

"That's someone else's image of who and what we are," UCLA coach Michael Sealy said. "We will try to work as hard as we can. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, it doesn't."

At least publicly, Sealy has that que sera, sera attitude -- which might seem too laid-back if you didn't know that this guy knows how to win championships. He also did it as a player, when the Bruins took the 1993 NCAA men's title.

Last year, he told his team to relax going into the postseason. He didn't want nerves to get to the players. UCLA was the No. 9 seed, yet played with a calm, confident, Zen vibe.

UCLA knocked off four-time defending national champ Penn State in the Sweet 16, then beat No. 1 seed Texas in the Elite Eight. After clobbering overmatched Florida State in the national semis, the Bruins were still "underdogs" -- at least in regard to seeding -- when they faced the No. 3 Illini.

Yet UCLA wore down Illinois in a four-set final in which Kidder had 20 kills and eight digs.

"When we first got back to school, everybody was really excited," Kidder said of returning to Westwood with the trophy. "But as we've started this preseason, I really haven't been thinking about that much. It's a brand-new season. But it helps confidence-wise, because we know what it takes to win."

Kidder has been all business in getting the Bruins ready for a big opening weekend in Lincoln, Neb. UCLA starts with Notre Dame there Friday, then faces host Nebraska on Saturday in what will be a carnival-like atmosphere at the Huskers' perpetually sold-out Coliseum.

"I played [at Nebraska] my freshman year, and it was crazy," Kidder said. "It was a huge crowd, and I'm really excited to go back. People there love volleyball. I'm glad to play there and have our team experience it, too."

For some of the Bruins, it will be a major eye-opener. UCLA has seven freshmen, but enough experience that the rookies shouldn't be put into situations where they will make mistakes. UCLA's biggest question is the setter position, as it lost the steady Lauren Van Orden to graduation.

Sophomore Megan Moenoa and freshman Becca Strehlow, both from Long Beach, Calif., are the top candidates at setter.

"I would assume that they are going to battle all year long," Sealy said. "I don't think either one has stepped up and dominated that position. They both have a lot of potential. It's going to be a position by committee. That's not ideal, but they need to battle a little longer.

"I don't think any setter steps in right away and immediately starts running a high-caliber Division I offense. The fact that we do try to have a pretty precise offense makes it a bigger challenge."

Kidder and fellow experienced standouts Kelly Reeves, Tabi Love and Bojana Todorovic will have to help bring the youngsters, especially the setters, along.

"I've never hit off of Becca before. With Megan, I have a little bit last year," Kidder said. "It's just something we have to keep working on. And no matter who ends up setting, it's going to be fine because we'll make sure we have a good-enough connection with both of them."

Kidder turned 21 last week but didn't have a big celebration. She had sushi for dinner with her teammates and kept things low-key. After all, the Bruins have been in the midst of two-a-day practices, and she's got a lot on her mind as a senior.

"Last year, we really didn't have expectations," Kidder said. "It was easier to go with the flow; whatever happens, happens.

"It will be harder to not let others' expectations get to us this year. We have to not play like we're trying to prove everyone is right about us being No. 1. We have to play for ourselves."

And for Dad, of course. It would be an even longer trip to Louisville than it was to San Antonio, but if Rachael and the Bruins are there -- one way or another -- John will be at the Final Four.

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