DYNAMIC DUO : Johnson, Tomblin Cornerstones of Featherstone's Grand Plan for USIU Volleyball Program

When Fred Featherstone, the women's volleyball coach at U.S. International University, looks at Claudia Johnson and Erin Tomblin, he sees the future.

And, the future looks bright to him.

Johnson and Tomblin, both freshmen, are the players Featherstone hopes will transform an average team into a nationally recognized program.

"Claudia and Erin are the nucleus," Featherstone said. "We're building the team around them. They're the best recruits I've ever had here."

Tomblin, a 5-foot 5-inch setter from Huntington Beach, was chosen Most Valuable Player at the Junior Olympics last summer, and Johnson, a 6-1 middle blocker from Carson, was named a second-team All-American at the tournament.

Both played for Coach Molly Kavanaugh's Tiger Gold, a Los Angeles club that won the Junior Olympics' 17-and-under championship, and both were selected for the team that represented the United States at the Pacific Rim Tournament in Hawaii last August.

USIU, a private school of 3,600 in Scripps Ranch, hasn't attracted players with such credentials in the past. The Gulls have only been an NCAA Division 1 team for four years, and they are usually overlooked in a city that includes San Diego State, a perennial Division I playoff entry, and UC San Diego, a two-time Division III national champion.

Moreover, USIU lacks what would seem to be a basic ingredient of any athletic program--an on-campus gymnasium. The Gulls practice at the Federal Building in Balboa Park and play their eight "home" matches at UC San Diego, Grossmont College and Torrey Pines High School.

Despite such a handicap, USIU compiled a 34-34 record over the last two seasons and Featherstone said he expects further improvement this fall.

Starting three freshmen, a sophomore, a junior and a senior, USIU is 7-9--four of its losses coming to Top 20 teams. In their first season in the West Coast Athletic Conference, the Gulls are 1-1 and face crucial tests this weekend in home games at UCSD. They play Santa Clara Friday night at 7:30 and University of San Francisco Saturday afternoon at 4:30.

Thus far, Tomblin and Johnson are among the WCAC's statistical leaders, and Tomblin was named the conference's Player of the Week last week for her play in victories over Boise State and the University of San Diego.

Tomblin said she and Johnson are glad to serve as the cornerstone of USIU's future growth as a volleyball team.

"It feels great," she said. "It's like we're starting something here. I wouldn't like it if the team was all seniors. We'll all be here the next three or four years. It's neat to be the building blocks."

Johnson and Tomblin are playing together for the third year--first with Tiger Gold and now at USIU--but they brought different backgrounds to their new school.

Tomblin, 17, has played volleyball for six years, both with clubs and at Edison High of Huntington Beach. Edison won the Sunset League title and finished second in the CIF Southern Section 4-A playoffs her senior year. She was named the Sunset League's MVP and was an All-Section selection.

Tomblin said she started playing volleyball at an early age because her father, Chaz Tomblin, liked the sport.

"I've always been around volleyball," she said. "It's part of our family."

Johnson, also 17, didn't start playing volleyball until she tried out for Tiger Gold as a junior at Banning High. She joined the Banning team as a senior and led it to the Marine League title. Johnson was chosen as the league's Player of the Year.

Playing at the Pac Rim tournament, featuring teams from the United States, Canada and the Far East, was memorable and educational, Johnson said.

"It was really an experience," she said. "There were all those different people speaking so many different languages."

Added Tomblin, "What was neat was that we all stayed in the same place. It taught me so much about volleyball and about other people. And it was really neat playing for the U.S.A. And then after we played people asked us for autographs."

The Americans finished fifth, as teams from Japan, China and Korea dominated.

One thing Tomblin and Johnson had in common as high school seniors was their desire to find a school where they could get a good education as well as play Division 1 volleyball. Tomblin, who watched Featherstone coach for two years in club tournaments, said USIU was right for her for two reasons.

"I like Fred's style of coaching," she said. "I wanted to go someplace where I would get along with the coach. And I wanted to go to a small school. I like the international aspect of the school and I like having just 15 or 16 students in my classes."

USIU was right for Johnson for a different reason.

"I want to become an actress, and I like the performing arts school here," she said, adding that she, like Tomblin, appreciated the small class sizes and international student body at USIU.

The Gulls have occasionally struggled on the court. For instance, after beating Boise State and USD earlier this month, they lost to Chapman, blowing leads of four points or more in three games. Against nationally ranked teams, they usually play well in spurts before losing down the stretch.

"I guess our inexperience hurts us sometimes," Tomblin said. "But all of the freshmen on the team have played for three or four years in the clubs, against good competition. To lose is frustrating, but we have to think of what's to come. We have to pay our dues."

After their dues are paid, Tomblin and Johnson should both do quite well, Featherstone said. Tomblin, with all her club experience, is already a polished player, he said.

"Erin has phenomenal leadership qualities," he said. "She's very confident and has good instincts. She has good location with her sets, she puts the ball in the same location every time. She can direct an attack, meaning she knows where the other team's weak blockers are, when we have a hot hitter, when we need to change formation."

Johnson, however, still needs experience, Featherstone said.

"Claudia is a very raw talent right now," he said. "But she has so much range and such quick feet. She has a jump reach of 10 feet, 3 inches. She's already a great hitter, in the middle and outside, hitting the low ball and the high ball. I've had some coaches tell me that she's a potential national team player."

The signing of Tomblin and Johnson--along with fellow freshmen Susan Phillips of San Marcos and Raquel Brown of Garden Grove and sophomore Nancy Dome of Los Angeles--is already paying dividends for Featherstone. High school players are now paying notice to USIU, Featherstone said.

"The new recruits are pretty well-recognized players," Featherstone said. "I've already been getting letters from some high school kids who would never have considered USIU before."

Any new players should like traveling, since they will have to make the 20-minute trip from USIU to the Federal Building for practice every day. But to Tomblin, the trip actually seems short.

"It really doesn't bother me," she said. "With the Tiger team, I traveled 45 minutes to practice each day, so the distance is really nothing. I think it actually brings the team together, because we talk a lot while we drive together in the van."

Johnson apparently doesn't do much talking on the drives. She uses the trips for another purpose.

"I like to sleep in the van," she said.

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