Kessel Has New Role on Volleyball Team : After Seven Years Away From Game, She Brings Leadership and Advice

Times Staff Writer

Laurel Brassey Kessel is older and wiser. And luckily, for her, so is the game of volleyball.

For nine years, Kessel had devoted her life to volleyball and the pursuit of an Olympic gold medal. But in 1980, when the United States boycotted the Olympics, her quest ended abruptly.

Kessel, who had played at Crawford High and San Diego State, retired from the national team, eventually got married, moved to New Mexico, went into coaching and made a new life for herself.

But now, at 33, Kessel is with the current national team playing at the Pan-American Games in Indianapolis, on its way to the 1988 Olympics.

"I never really thought I'd play again on the national team," she said. "I thought, 'Well, my time is past. It's a new team and a new coach.' "

But the coach, Terry Liskevych, who left University of the Pacific to take over the national team in 1985, sought Kessel for the leadership she could bring to the team.

Kessel's international experience--she played in 269 international matches with the U.S. team between 1972 and 1980--is perhaps her strongest contribution to the team. Liskevych also praises her skill as a setter, her leadership and her aggressive style of play.

Kessel was 26 when she quit playing. She had no college degree, no work experience and no training in anything except volleyball.

"It had been my whole life," she said.

Back then, under coach Arie Selinger, the national team had trained six to eight hours a day, every day except Sunday, almost year-round in preparation for the 1980 Olympics.

"Mentally, it was really hard to keep doing that day in and day out," Kessel said.

Liskevych has a different philosophy.

"We want to be best in world, but at the same time not to forget there are other things besides volleyball," Liskevych said.

"We want this to be a symbiotic relationship, to make volleyball success help with future success."

Though Kessel, who is coach of the University of New Mexico volleyball program, has already established her own success in life, the new philosophy is easing her transition back into competitive play.

So is the support of her husband, John, who works for the United States Volleyball Assn. When she asked him what he thought about her playing again, he told her, "Of course, you have to do it."

And the university gave her a leave of absence.

The schedule has been rigorous since she joined the team in April, traveling to the North-Central America, Caribbean Zone tournament in Havana. There the United States qualified for the 1988 Olympics by finishing second to Cuba. Then there was a tournament in Moscow, and now the Pan Am Games.

But Liskevych has allowed the team a few days off after each trip and has encouraged players to pursue work or school interests outside of practice.

"Physically I feel better, fresher--and mentally I feel real good," Kessel said. "After a few days off, I'm ready to go again."

The U.S. team has not fared especially well at Indianapolis, however. The United States had clinched a berth in the medal round but had only a 1-3 record in preliminary matches. After beating Canada, 3-1, the U.S. women lost to Cuba, 3-0, Peru, 3-1, and Brazil, 3-1. In their three games against the Cubans, whom they had been hoping to play for the gold medal, they scored only 22 points.

Whatever happens at Indianapolis, however, the U.S. team is assured an Olympic berth and playing in the Olympics is about the only thing Kessel hasn't achieved in her career. She has played internationally in Italy, and professionally last spring with the Dallas Belles. She even played with the San Diego State men's National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship team in 1973. Because of her travel with the national team that year, she couldn't play on the women's team.

After leaving the national team in 1980 and going through a difficult year-long adjustment, Kessel began working toward the completion of her degree, but stayed involved in volleyball. As a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee executive board, she worked at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when the United States took the silver medal.

"That was really hard," Kessel said. "Those were seven of my teammates and I knew I could be playing, but I had made my choice."

When Liskevych surprised her with his offer to join the team last April, though, it didn't take Kessel long to make up her mind.

"I took a few days to think about it," she said. "But I knew I would accept."

Kessel is five years older than the next-oldest player on the team. But she said the adjustment has been easier than she expected.

"We don't associate that much as a group," she said. "But on the court, every time we play, we keep getting better."

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