NCAA VOLLEYBALL FINAL FOUR : Northridge Star Has Uplifting Experience : Lynch Near-Perfect as Matadors Win Federation Title

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ken Lynch came close, but his performance fell just short of flawless last week when he led Cal State Northridge to the championship of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation men's volleyball tournament.

Sure, he had more than 30 kills in consecutive matches as the Matadors downed USC, Pepperdine and Cal State Long Beach to earn a berth in the NCAA championship tournament. And yes, he was recognized as the tournament's most valuable player.

But there was the matter of that yellow card he earned for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Midway through Northridge's four-game victory over USC, a Trojan hitter smashed a shot that ricocheted off Lynch's block and out-of-bounds for a point.

Frustrated, Lynch barked an expletive that echoed above the chatter of the crowd in the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine. Referee Rick Olmsted dutifully raised the yellow card, cautioning Lynch that another such outburst would not be tolerated.

Axel Hager, a teammate standing nearby, was so shocked that he did a double take. "Ken always watches his mouth and what he says," Hager said. "I said, 'Wow, Kenny, is that really you?' "

Olmsted found Lynch's outburst just as surprising.

"He told me later that it was an honor to give me my first yellow card," Lynch said of the official. "I'm the last guy you would think would get a yellow card because I never argue or yell at any ref. But I was so frustrated with myself. . . . I told him later, 'I didn't say that, I said 'Fudge!' He said, 'No, Kenny, you didn't.' I said, 'Yeah, maybe you're right. I guess I didn't.' "

Recalling the incident this week, Lynch laughed. He considers himself a work in progress--on and off the volleyball court.

Though deeply religious and introspective, Lynch has learned to be patient with himself. He knows that because of his deep-rooted faith, he is held to a higher standard.

"If I ever go off what I guess you could say is my righteous path, then I'm nailed to the wall," he said. "I understand that. When I make a mistake, I'm going to hear about it."

Therefore, it would take more than a few imperfect blocks and a little indiscriminate language to strip much luster from an otherwise brilliant showing.

"Those three games I can't explain," Lynch said. "It was like I was in a zone I've never been before. I was so focused I felt like I was in another world out there."

In the tournament, Lynch's attacking percentage was 42.9%. "He was very tuned in and very good," Coach John Price said. "He was the player we wanted him to be all year."

Injuries kept Lynch from playing at a similar level all season. Early this season he sustained strained ligaments in his back. That problem developed into more a painful bout with a pinched sciatic nerve.

When he lands after a jump, Lynch experiences a piercing jab in his buttocks. "I do have pain," he said, "but at least it's not shooting down my leg anymore."

After a match, as he gingerly tilts to one side while resting in a chair, Lynch's discomfort becomes obvious. "When it was really bad, it was the worst when I sat in my car," he said. "There were times I couldn't sit down."

Playing volleyball--although often agonizing--does not worsen Lynch's injury. He has been told by Northridge doctors that he can play so long as he can stand the pain.

Matt Unger, Northridge's setter, said he has often come home during the past few months to find his roommate sprawled on the floor, icing his back and trying to stretch it out.

"Kenny has played where his leg is tingling and his foot goes numb on him, and he's still played pretty well," Price said. "Considering the pain he has been in, he has had an amazing season."

Lynch only wishes Price did not have to qualify that statement. His injury, he believes, has prevented him from taking his rightful place among collegiate volleyball's top players.

A third-team All-American last season, Lynch did not receive so much as honorable mention in this, his senior year. That fact struck close to home this week when Lynch was talking to his mother, Dorothy, and had to tell her that she would need to spend $50 for tickets if she wanted to attend a banquet before the volleyball championships.

"The parents of the players on the All-American team get in free," Lynch lamented.

When healthy, Price said, Lynch is "in the same league" with Dave Goss of Stanford, Tom Sorenson of Pepperdine and Brent Hilliard of Cal State Long Beach--the three hitters considered the best in the collegiate game. "At his best, Ken's probably better," Price said. "When he's on, he's practically automatic."

In last weekend's tournament, Lynch was on, having temporarily at least blocked out the pain.

"Sometimes, when I'm really focused, I don't even feel it anymore," he said. "I think I showed last week that I'm a winner and that I have poise and that I can be consistent--even when I'm injured."

Lynch hasn't always possessed such qualities--even when he has been healthy.

Chris McGee, Northridge's backup setter, has been a friend of Lynch's since they were classmates at Crespi High. He recalls a time when Lynch's actions contradicted his best intentions.

In one instance, as a prelude to an important game against rival Notre Dame High, Crespi freshman team members were given a choice by their coach either to stay and practice late that same Friday afternoon or meet for practice the following day at 6:45 a.m.

Everyone wanted to practice right then. Everyone except Lynch, who passionately urged his teammates to volunteer for double duty and practice at both times.

"He gave this big speech," McGee said. "He had the whole team fired up."

But the next day, while his teammates trudged through drills in a freezing gymnasium, Lynch was nowhere to be found. The team was furious.

On the following Monday as Lynch was stretching before practice after school, the coach approached and asked him where he was on Saturday.

Nervous and embarrassed, Lynch could only stammer, "My bed has wheels."

"Your bed has wheels?" the coach wailed. Lynch just looked at him still speechless.

Lynch later explained that his bed moved across the floor of his room during the night, tripping the cord to his alarm clock.

"But instead of saying that, all that came out was, 'My bed has wheels,' " McGee said. "Classic Kenny Lynch."

A few years later, when they both were members of the varsity basketball squad, McGee recalls, Crespi twice was penalized for having six players on the floor after a timeout. Each time, Lynch was the extra player.

Perhaps it was destiny's way of showing everyone that Lynch was best suited for volleyball, a six-man game played on the hardwood.

"Kenny has always been a big, lovable guy," McGee said, "but he needed a lot of direction. In basketball, he was the center and I was the point guard, so I always had to yell at him and tell him where to go.

"And when that didn't work, I'd hit him in the face--just a little jab--and that would seem to snap him back. Then he'd be all right."

Lynch believes his extremely busy social calendar surely contributed to his mental lapses.

"I did a lot of partying and drinking," he said. "Then I started thinking, 'There has to be more to life than this.' "

But it wasn't until the fall of 1990, before his sophomore year at Northridge, that Lynch underwent a fundamental change. A friend took him to meet "a woman who knew God."

In a meeting at a hotel in Westwood, Lynch said, he experienced the "baptism of the Holy Ghost."

He describes the encounter in almost mystical terms. When the woman laid her hands on him, Lynch said, he felt "a liquid love that just came down and coursed through me."

"It was a radical experience," he said. "It was God touching me the way I needed to be touched to make me believe in God."

Since then, Lynch, who grew up attending parochial schools, has embraced religion with renewed fervor. He prays often, and aloud, actually speaking in tongues, a communication he describes as "a heavenly language" between himself and God.

"We definitely hear him," said Unger, who shares an apartment with Lynch and Hager. "Sometimes if I'm just coming in from somewhere and I hear him, I knock on his door just to make sure he's all right."

Hager, who came to Northridge 17 months ago from Germany, initially found Lynch's religious habits rather unusual. "I had a language problem anyway," Hager said, "so I didn't understand."

Warming up before a match, Lynch appears to be talking to himself. Actually, he says, he is saying a prayer, asking God to protect all the players--"me especially," he says--and to help them wage a fair competition.

He also asks for help in dealing with his pain.

In last week's tournament, he got his wish. "There were certain instances during those games where I felt God was on me real hard," Lynch said. "And I'm just laughing and saying thanks. I was on fire. I felt like I was playing out of my mind."

Except, Lynch admits, when he lost his head.

"Yeah, that yellow card," he said. "Well, I'm not perfect. I'm working on me."

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