Olympic Hopes Still Flourish for Volleyball Veteran Sato

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 5 foot 4 and with the assignment of concentrating on back row defense, it might be easy for USA volleyball team member Liane Sato of Santa Monica to get lost in the forest of 6-foot-plus hitters and blockers who score the points.

That's a realization not lost on the former San Diego State All-American, who has a simple answer: Play a style that risks life and limb and makes fans, coaches and teammates take notice.

"She's able to make the spectacular play as well as anyone I've ever coached," Terry Liskevych, the USA team coach, said.

"People like to see the driven spikes but it's just as spectacular to see somebody save one of those spikes with a dive or a sprawl that makes the crowd ooh and aah. She's a crowd-pleaser."

Since joining the U.S. team before the 1988 Olympics, Sato has made herself valuable by going all-out in a reserve role. It may seem thankless, but it suits her as long as it keeps her in the top 12 players in the rotation. That's what makes the cut for the Olympic team. Olympic team cuts will probably be made in June.

Sato, one of six Olympic veterans on the team, is competing for the back row spot with Ruth Lawanson and Janet Cobbs. Sato says every practice and tournament enters into her Olympic chances, even with her 1988 tenure.

"That's usually how I approach every tournament," she said. "Every day in practice is a factor. You're always competing for one of the 12 spots. Every tournament you try to make that 12."

In her limited role, Sato competes by aggressively trying for every ball, providing a spark off the bench as well as her more tangible qualities such as quickness and defensive skills.

At 5-4 and 120 pounds, Sato is the only member of the USA team below 5-8 and 150 pounds. But she offers the team a big serving of spirit on the court.

Liskevych said that along with her ability to "get low to the floor and chase down a lot of broken plays," Sato "adds a lot of fire and aggressiveness. Her leadership, competitiveness and aggressiveness on the court and things we look for."

When told that assessment, Sato nodded her head in agreement.

"I feel lucky that's how I am naturally," she said. "I'm competitive when I'm playing. It's also part of my role. They expect things that aren't just defense--leadership, competitiveness, firing 'em up. Raise the level of play, that's what you try to do. Get the girls going."

Sato is one of six siblings from a volleyball-happy family in Santa Monica, where four brothers also played.

"We'd pile in the van and go from one game to another," she said.

She led Santa Monica High to a state title in 1981, then attended UC Santa Barbara. After two years there, she transferred to San Diego State, joining three of her brothers who were playing or coaching in town, and earned All-America honors as a setter for Coach Rudy Suwara in 1986.

After she graduated in 1987, Sato was invited by Liskevych to try out for the U.S. team that fall. It turned into an extended tryout, and she became an official member of the team in December. The team had already qualified for Seoul.

Liskevych was rebuilding the U.S. team and had no Olympic veterans, the 1984 silver medal team having broken up. Sato's invitation had one catch--she would no longer be a setter except for rare moments as a backup. Her future was on the back line.

"As a back row specialist, she usually goes in one time a game," Liskevych said. "It's a difficult position--in college she was an All-American setter and played all the time. Now she plays a role."

But Sato said if some people saw that as a demotion, she never has.

"They asked me to try out as a back row specialist," she said. "I said, 'Sure, I feel confident in my defense, I can play that role.' It was a role change but it wasn't traumatic--you know, 'She used to start, now she's a sub.'

"There's only 12 on the Olympic team. Figure it out. Just to be on the team, that's a reward in itself."

Sato made the cut and went to Seoul, where volleyball was a family affair for the Sato clan. Younger brother Eric was a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. men's team and older brother Gary was an assistant coach on the team. They hope to make repeat appearances in Barcelona this summer.

The U.S. women had a tougher time, failing to make the medal round and finishing seventh. But Sato said it was a rewarding summer.

"It's overwhelming because it's such a unique experience to go to the Olympics," she said. "You try to treat it like another tournament but you're there in the (athletes') village with all the greatest athletes in the world. It was a great experience for my family. We're really looking forward to that (again this summer)."

Although the current women's team is ranked fourth in the world and has on occasion beaten the top three--Cuba, China and the former Soviet Union--it only recently qualified as one of the eight Olympic teams, and Sato said that will make it even more special for her to be on the team.

"It's really important for a lot of us because we weren't qualified until November," she said. "Here we were training just to get to the Olympics, then we didn't make it in one tournament, and we didn't make it again, and we finally did it in the World Cup. It means that much more when you have to work that hard. That's why we're so eager to do well. We've worked hard for it. We're hungry."

Now the catch is to make the team.

"I've thought about (not making it), but not much," she said. "That's not very productive. It goes through your mind sometimes, but it's not helpful. I'd rather concentrate on what I'm gonna do when I make the team."

Although the team works out in San Diego nearly every day, Sato supports herself working for the Automobile Club in a position provided through the Olympic Job Opportunities Program. She has a degree in physical education and would like to get a teaching credential someday. She's also engaged, with potential wedding plans after the Olympics.

But Sato, who turns 28 after the Barcelona Games, said she'll play for the U.S. team as long as she's welcome.

"I'd love to keep playing volleyball for the U.S.," she said with a wide smile. "It's a great honor. I mean, you're one of 12 people in the whole country. Isn't that great? That's a trip."

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