Radiating Confidence : Cal State Northridge Intends to Make Impression in the Nation's Top Men's Volleyball Conference

Times Staff Writer

In past years, when Cal State Northridge closed for its semester break, everything shut down, including the furnace in the CSUN gym, forcing the men's volleyball team to practice in the cold. This year, the heat is on, which could very well be the slogan for the Matadors.

"We have enough talent to be one of the top teams in the league," said Coach John Price, whose Matadors open their season tonight in a tournament at UC Santa Barbara.

And being among the best teams in the Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Assn. means that the Matadors will be ranked in the top 10 nationally. Traditionally, the WIVA, which includes UCLA, USC and Pepperdine, dominates collegiate volleyball. Last season, the Matadors finished eighth in the league--and were at one time ranked No. 8 in the nation.

The Matadors are also the Valley's only big-time sports team. Despite its Division II status in other sports, CSUN is a Division I school in volleyball. This season, USC, Pepperdine, Stanford and Ohio State will be among the Division I teams visiting the CSUN campus.

Although the Matadors have never reached the NCAA tournament regionals in their four years in Division I, Price thinks "that's a realistic goal this season."

His optimism stems from the presence of Jeff Campbell, a 6-foot, 7-inch middle blocker.

"Jeff puts us over the top," Price said. "He'll be one of the best players in the league. Without him, we'd be competitive and have a good shot at fifth. But with him, we'll compete with everybody."

Most volleyball players at CSUN are either transfers or walk-ons. Campbell, a transfer from UCLA who redshirted last year at CSUN, was not interested in staying in the Valley after graduating from Chatsworth High. Unlike UCLA, which offers five volleyball scholarships, CSUN, a poorly funded school even for Division II, has only 1 1/2.

"The top Valley players would rather play at USC or UCLA," Price said. "It's really tough for us to recruit without being able to offer room and board. There's no way we could have recruited a player like Jeff out of high school."

The lack of scholarships "really hurts us," said Campbell, who decided to transfer close to home after quitting UCLA in 1985. Campbell also has noticed other differences between the two schools. The Matadors have a solid nucleus of 12 players, he said, but UCLA, the defending NCAA champion, has "20 or 30 talented players to choose from."

Like Price, Campbell has high hopes for the Matadors. "This is definitely the most talented team we've had," he said. "This should be our most productive year."

Price's outlook is buoyed by team size. Besides Campbell, Price will utilize the height of 6-6 Bob Samuelson, an outside hitter who was a redshirt last season; 6-6 middle blocker Ron Graening and 6-6 freshman Raphael Tulino, a transfer from UC Santa Barbara. Six-foot setter Tom Ribarich is a returning starter from last year.

In preseason rankings by Volleyball Monthly, seven of the top eight teams in the country are WIVA members. CSUN is listed as "a team to watch." Curiously, the nation's top-rated team is Penn State, an interloper from the East.

"Penn State has the best middle blocker and best setter in the country," said Price, whose Matadors play the Nittany Lions in a tournament at Ball State in April.

The Matadors have a tough act to follow this season--the Lady Matadors won the Division II volleyball title last fall. Price feels no pressure, however. "It only helps to have Walt Ker here," he said, referring to the women's coach. "I go to him all the time for advice. Walt's a great teacher. He's great at pinpointing a problem."

But this season, Price hopes the only advice he will need from Ker is how to celebrate a championship.

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