UCLA, Illinois put new face on NCAA championship

By Paul J. Weber

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 16 2011 4:35 p.m. MST

Illinois' Jennifer Beltran hits the ball during an NCAA college semifinals volleyball match against USC, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011, in San Antonio. Illinois won the match 3-2.

Darren Abate, Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO — It had seemed lately that the NCAA women's volleyball championship was always coming down to the same few schools.

This won't be one of those years.

First-timer Illinois and UCLA, a once-invincible volleyball giant of the 1980s and early 90s before being surpassed by West Coast rivals, play for the national title Saturday in the biggest facelift to the final match in the last eight tournaments.

Illinois (32-4) hadn't even been to the semifinals since 1988, while UCLA (29-6) hasn't played for a championship since winning its third in 1994.

"What's good for our sport is that we get a higher rating on TV. We fill the seats," Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said Friday. "If we do that, and more people watch because it's L.A. and Chicago, that's great."

Since 2004, at least one of the same five schools has played in the national championship match: four-time defending champion Penn State, Nebraska, Texas, California and Stanford. The Cardinal won an NCAA-record sixth title in 2004 before losing two consecutive times to the Nittany Lions, whose run stands as the most dominant in the sport's history.

UCLA was once the blueprint for how to build a dynasty. The Bruins hoarded the best players from volleyball-rich Southern California, made five consecutive trips to the semifinals starting in 1988 and won its three championships. Even today, the program's 12 national semifinal berths are second all-time.

Those glory days in Westwood are older than most of UCLA's current players.

UCLA never exactly nosedived off college volleyball's landscape of haves and have-nots — there are just 10 different champions in the last 30 years — but the Bruins were hardly living up to their legacy even during the years when they went deep into the regional finals.

UCLA coach Michael Sealy is entwined in Bruins history more than most. He was born on the campus and played on the UCLA men's team during the peak of the women's dominance.

The 20-year championship drought is no surprise to him.

"During our heyday there were only six good teams in the country, so to make it to the finals now is not as easy as it was back in the day," Sealy said. "Today there is parity everywhere and there are great teams everywhere. There are so many kids coming up through the club level and not all of them can go to a UCLA, a Penn State or a Texas."

Illinois (32-4) is bringing Midwest pride to a sport where only three champions — Penn State, Nebraska and Texas — don't hail from the West Coast. Twelve of its players are from Illinois, including star outside hitter Colleen Ward, who had 27 kills in Thursday night's semifinal upset of USC in a five-set thriller.

"I'm from Naperville," Ward said. "I think it means more."

Hambly said that women's volleyball must make money on the NCAA championships to be a top-tier sport. He figured a large market like Illinois and the school's vast alumni couldn't hurt to draw in new fans and viewers. In the past, Hambly said he's been dismayed to see the few advertisements when matches are televised.

"If it's on ESPN unfortunately, it's a lot of ESPN commercials," Hambly said.

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