On the surface, little has changed in UCLA women’s volleyball. The Bruins have reached the final four--for the 17th time in 20 years--and for the third year in a row, they have done so ranked No. 1 in the country.
But when they play 17th-ranked Louisiana State tonight at College Park, Md., the Bruins, who are riding a 31-match winning streak, will be at a critical juncture. The final four semifinals have not been kind to UCLA in recent years, including the past two in which the Bruins have been unable to win a game .
But this season, the Bruins insist they are a far different team than the one that lost to Texas in the 1988 semifinals and to Nebraska last year.
“The last two years, we’ve always counted on key players, and this year it’s more of a well-rounded team,” senior hitter Samantha Shaver said. “We depend on everybody, not just the six out on the court, and even the bench is very important.”
Also, the Bruins have had a more competitive season than their 34-1 record would indicate, coming from behind on several occasions to win matches. That, Shaver said, has done wonders for the team. She added:
“Before, we’ve gone through the Pac-10 and tournaments and killed every team, but this year we’ve been down, and so we know what it’s like to be losing, and to be down two games and come back to win.”
UCLA Coach Andy Banachowski said: “They don’t have a feeling of invincibility about them at all. Maybe the previous teams thought nobody could stay with them. And then somebody did, and all of a sudden we got tight.”
The Bruins have had a more balanced attack this season, with a much quicker offense set up by Holly McPeak, a transfer from California who has been extremely successful in reading the opponents’ defense.
But McPeak has plenty of help. There’s left-handed sophomore, Natalie Williams, who on Wednesday was named a first-team All-American. Hitting opposite Williams is Jenny Evans, a second-team All-American.
Shaver, who has a UCLA-record 1,380 digs, and Marissa Hatchett consistently join Williams and Evans in double figures in kills.
LSU (34-6) is big and powerful, but much slower than the Bruins and not as adept at handling the ball. The Tigers, making their first appearance in the Final Four, won the South Regional by defeating Texas in five games.
LSU has relied largely on the hitting of first-team All-American Monique Adams, first on the team in kills with 596, and Nyla Shepherd in an offense set by a Brazilian, Daniela Reis, a second-team All-American.
Should the Bruins break their semifinal jinx, they will play the winner of tonight’s semifinal match between Pacific (29-6) and Nebraska (32-2).