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Burton’s Talent Speaks for Itself in Volleyball

If you ask Nichelle Burton, she will politely request that you not compare her to the person who previously played her position on the Long Beach State women’s volleyball team. That player, Antoinnette White, was one of the best in the sport.

Trouble is, watching Burton on the court, one might be tempted to make that comparison.

“The only real comparison I would make is that they both are very good volleyball players and both work very hard,” said Brian Gimmillaro, Long Beach coach. “They are really two different people.”

But Burton, a junior outside hitter, has been making her mark on the national scene for the top-ranked 49ers. She was selected as the American Volleyball Coaches Assn.'s player of the week earlier this season after hitting .535 with 42 kills during two matches in a tournament at Chicago.

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White was the star at Long Beach from 1989-91, leading the 49ers to a national championship in 1989 and a second-place finish in 1991, when she was selected AVCA player of the year. Burton took over for White on the left side last season as a sophomore and was selected a second-team All-American.

“I wasn’t really scared of coming in after Antoinnette,” Burton said. “I just didn’t want to be compared to her.”

Unlike White, Burton is not the 49ers’ star. She often is overshadowed by senior middle blocker Danielle Scott, a 6-foot-2, two-time first team All-American. But that doesn’t bother Burton.

“We know Danielle is going to do her little bit,” Burton said. "(But) I’m always in there. I never count myself out. I will be there fighting to the end.”

It wasn’t until Burton’s sophomore year in high school that she discovered volleyball, or rather, volleyball discovered her. Nadine Sass, legendary volleyball coach at Camelback High in Phoenix, saw Burton playing basketball and decided that Burton should be a volleyball player.

"(Sass) stayed on me for a full year,” Burton recalled. “I told my friends, ‘I am not going to get this lady off my back, so I am going to just go to one of her practices so she can leave me alone.’ ”

But then . . .

“I liked it,” Burton said.

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In three seasons, Burton led Camelback to a 62-0 record and two state championships. She was the team’s most valuable player for two years and a high school All-American her senior year.

Burton mostly watched in 1991 as White led the 49ers to the NCAA final. Last season, Burton helped the 49ers to the NCAA semifinals.

Long Beach got five starters back from last season. And because Burton has improved her play--"I think she’s one of the most improved players in the country,” Gimmillaro said--they seem to be on course for an appearance in the NCAA tournament at Madison, Wis., in December.

The 49ers, 10-0 overall and 4-0 in the Big West Conference, will play host to sixth-ranked USC, 8-2 overall and 3-1 in the Pacific 10, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. USC is the highest-ranked team remaining on the 49ers’ regular-season schedule.

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Maybe the best thing that ever happened to Meika Wagner, a junior middle blocker on the USC women’s volleyball team, is that she got a speeding ticket in high school.

Instead of a fine, Wagner was ordered to do volunteer work in the community. That is how she was introduced to Project Courage, an after-school program for needy children in Moreno Valley.

Wagner continued as a volunteer at Project Courage until she eventually joined the staff. Her experiences there were eye-opening.

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“You would just get a lot of kids running around and using the F-word like it was a first language,” Wagner said.

Wagner is considering a career in social work--"Volleyball is not going to be around forever,” she said--but in the meantime, she has become a big-match player for USC.

Wagner had 17 kills to lead the Trojans to an upset over then-top-ranked Stanford on Sept. 17. Also, after a crushing 15-7, 5-15, 11-15, 9-15 defeat at unranked Oregon State on Friday, Wagner led the Trojans with 17 kills and hit .600 in a 15-12, 15-6, 15-13 victory at Oregon on Saturday.

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Dramatic gains and falls have taken place in the AVCA weekly women’s rankings this season.

Defending NCAA champion Stanford was top-ranked to start the season but fell to fifth after losing to UCLA and USC earlier this month.

Long Beach, previously ranked second, took over the top spot from Stanford last week. It is the first time in nearly three years that a team other than Stanford or UCLA was ranked No. 1.

USC was ranked ninth at the start of the season but rose to sixth last week after its victory over Stanford (7-2, 2-2 in the Pac-10). After the Trojans’ defeat by Oregon State, however, they probably will fall considerably.

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UCLA (9-0, 4-0 in the Pac-10) has risen from a preseason fourth to second last week. Andy Banachowski, 27-year veteran UCLA coach, is not surprised by teams jumping around in the rankings because of the many new faces this season.

“I think that it’s not totally unexpected with so many players graduated from teams last year that there’s going to be a lot more uncertainty as teams take a while to kind of find themselves. . . . Hopefully, it will create a little bit more interest (among) the fans.”

This week’s rankings will be released today.

Notes

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Long Beach has an average attendance of 532 through seven home matches this season. . . . The Juniata women’s volleyball team defeated Washington of St. Louis, 4-15, 15-12, 15-13, 16-14, Friday, ending Washington’s NCAA-record winning streak at 59 matches.


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