Saint Mary's joins national picture

If you were asked to rank the best Division I women's college volleyball programs in California, your list probably would include Stanford, USC, UCLA and Long Beach State. If you are more than a casual fan, your list might include UC Santa Barbara, Pepperdine or Pacific.

It's highly unlikely anyone would have thought to include Saint Mary's College of California. But that might be about to change.

Competing in the relative obscurity of the West Coast Conference, the Gaels are coming off the most successful season in the program's history. They made a second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the Sweet 16, and were ranked No. 13 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association final poll.

SMC posted a 25-4 record and finished second in the conference. More important, the Gaels jumped into the national spotlight by sweeping a home-and-home series against Stanford, the eventual national champion.

With four starters and two other key letter winners returning, Saint Mary's is poised to have another successful season. But with higher expectations and loftier goals, the definition of success has been upgraded significantly for the Gaels.

"[Winning the WCC] is up there, but our main goal is to win an NCAA championship," said junior setter Mandy Bible, a first-team all-conference selection in 2004. "But to do that, you have to do well in your conference. We haven't won one yet, and we are very hungry to do so."

With two conference rivals -- San Diego and Pepperdine -- also ranked in the preseason Top 25, it's obvious that winning the West Coast can be a daunting challenge. Only the Pac-10 (6), the Big Ten (4) and the Big 12 (4) had more members in the national rankings. Despite its No. 23 national ranking, SMC was ranked below five other teams by the WCC coaches in their preseason poll.

"Sixth in the West Coast Conference was a little surprising," first-year head coach Rob Browning said, "But, it's a really competitive conference. I think there are six teams who can compete for the conference championship. We understand that neither poll means very much, and we're taking it in stride."

Having a new coach might have been one of the reasons the Gaels were not considered a threat for the conference title. But a closer inspection of Browning's coaching pedigree would have revealed an important fact -- he and former SMC coach Jon Stevenson employed the same system and methodology.

Browning spent three seasons as a volunteer coach with the Brigham Young men's program, working under longtime coach Carl McGowan. After winning the 1999 national championship with BYU, Browning became an assistant coach with USA Volleyball's men's national team, where he served under head coach Doug Beal the past six years.

"It's been a very smooth transition," Bible said. "As soon as Rob got here, we knew that we could be even more successful than we were last year. He brought in really good people, and we've been running the same system. We have a solid corps of players from last year, and the incoming girls were pretty talented. We should do even better."

The Gaels have a solid starting lineup that features first-team all-conference selection Kaui Salzman at outside hitter. Salzman led the team with 359 kills and was second with 400 digs. Versatile Bible ranked among the NCAA leaders, averaging 12.98 assists per game, and was third on the team with 101 total blocks and fourth with 285 digs.

Junior middle blocker Cassandra Kolkka and sophomore outside hitter Missie Stidham earned all-conference honorable mention honors. Kolkka had 326 kills and 397 digs, and Stidham had 175 kills and a team-high 439 digs. To no one's surprise, that foursome leads Saint Mary's in every statistical category after the season's first weekend.

"We've got four returning starters from a team that did really well last year," Browning says. "We've got a few freshmen who are contributing, working hard and learning a lot. We've got a few walk-ons who are helping us in practice by filling roles. We've got a good group, we just don't have a bench. We don't have subs and people competing for spots."

Fortunately for Browning, his team is motivated by last year's success and the perceived slight from the WCC preseason poll. The Gaels also know that if they want to be mentioned in the same breath as the perennial powers of college volleyball, they will need to earn that distinction every time they step on the court.

"It's nice that people know who Saint Mary's College is, at least in the volleyball world," Bible said. "It's a good feeling, but it changes each year. You have to keep earning that respect, or you will never have a really well-known program like Stanford or Pepperdine.

"I think we still haven't earned the respect we deserve in our conference. We've been good the last few years, but before that, it was a pretty poor program. It has given us a lot of motivation to do well. I'm trying to make it a positive by knowing we have to prove ourselves again."

SMC will take a 3-0 record into this weekend's tournament at Texas A&M. The Gaels defeated Arizona State, UNLV and host Cal State Northridge a week ago, but will make a step up in class when they face the 16th-ranked Aggies on their home court. It will be the first of nine matches against ranked opponents for Saint Mary's this season. Those are the matches the Gaels need to win to earn a place among the elite programs in college volleyball.

"We have no intention of going backwards," Browning said. "We expect to be a great volleyball team year in and year out. The last few years have helped a lot in the reputation that we've got here at Saint Mary's. It's a great school. We can recruit well here, and we fully expect to maintain that high standard."

Team of the Week
Nebraska lived up to its billing as the No. 1 team in the nation by winning the AVCA/NACWAA College Volleyball Showcase at the Qwest Center in Omaha. The Huskers defeated No. 4 Hawaii 3-0 (30-23, 30-26, 30-21) in a semifinal match, then beat No. 3 Stanford 3-0 (30-23, 31-29, 33-31) to claim the championship. NU became the first host to win the tournament in its 11-year history, and the Huskers joined Stanford (1995 and 2002) and USC (2003 and 2004) as the only two-time winners of the event. The Huskers won their first title in 2001. Nebraska now can set its sights on joining Long Beach State (1998) and USC (2003) as the only tournament champions that went on to win the national championship. NU's Christina Houghtelling, a junior outside hitter, was the tournament's most valuable player. The other selections to the all-tournament team were Cynthia Barboza (Stanford), Melissa Elmer (Nebraska), Victoria Prince (Hawaii), Kristin Richards (Stanford) and Sam Tortorello (Penn State).

Omaha Sets Showcase Attendance Record
The 2005 College Volleyball Showcase drew a record crowd of 20,604 for the two-day event, an average of 10,302 per night. The 10,576 fans attending Saturday's championship match were the 11th-largest crowd for women's volleyball in NCAA history and the largest crowd for a women's athletic event in Omaha. It was the 26th time there has been a volleyball crowd of more than 10,000 for a match that was not played in conjunction with another event, such as a "Midnight Madness" in basketball. Although the Qwest Center might not have been a neutral site, it was the first time the tournament had been played at an off-campus location. Friday's matches were played before a crowd of 10,028, which also broke the previous Showcase record of 9,345 set in 2003 at Hawaii's Stan Sheriff Center for a match between USC and Hawaii.

Coming Attractions
Two tournaments slated for the upcoming weekend will see ranked teams going head-to-head. The Hawaiian Airlines Classic will feature No. 5 Penn State, No. 4 Hawaii and No. 7 USC. The four-team field also includes Western Michigan. Matches that have two ranked opponents include Penn State vs. USC, who played Wednesday; USC vs. Hawaii on Thursday; and the second match in a little more than a week between Penn State and Hawaii on Friday. The Sports Imports Classic at No. 12 Ohio State will pit the Buckeyes against No. 1 Nebraska on Friday and No. 24 Long Beach State on Saturday. Other matches between ranked opponents are No. 15 UC Santa Barbara at No. 8 Florida, No. 9 Tennessee at No. 21 Missouri, No. 13 UCLA vs. No. 18 San Diego, No. 20 Georgia Tech at No. 17 Arizona, No. 23 Saint Mary's at No. 16 Texas A&M, and No. 22 Colorado State at No. 25 Pepperdine.

Rally Points
American University's Barry Goldberg picked up career win No. 400 when the Eagles defeated Loyola (Md.) College on Tuesday night. Now in his 17th season, Goldberg is the 37th coach in Division I to reach the milestone. ... LSU senior middle blocker Ivana Kuzmic set a school record by hitting .714 (10-14-0) in a victory over Campbell University. She was named the SEC Player of the Week and the MVP of the Georgia Southern Invitational. ... Washington junior setter Courtney Thompson set an NCAA record with 18 consecutive serves during the first game against Gardner-Webb on Aug. 26. The Huskies also set school records for the least number of points allowed in a game since rally scoring was instituted in 2001 (30-8), which they tied the next night against Montana State. UW also set records for team hitting percentage on consecutive nights, including a .566 clip against the Grizzlies. ... Youngstown State senior setter Angela Pasquinelli became just the third player in school history to reach the 3,000-assist plateau during the Penguins' victory over Canisius. During that match, she eclipsed her own school record with 86 assists.

Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.