Burton Again Brings the Best Out in 49ers : College volleyball: Long Beach to call on her talent Sunday in NCAA playoffs.


An exhausted Nichelle Burton glanced at the scoreboard, her teammates and the crowd, and realized she faced another of those defining moments now confronting her daily.

Long Beach State and Hawaii were tied at two games in a pivotal Big West Conference women’s volleyball match Nov. 1, and Burton, a Long Beach senior outside hitter and the team captain, thought she’d better do something.

She did. Her powerful kill fired up everyone in The Gold Mine gym, except the stunned group across the net. Burton finished with a match-high 18 kills and the 49ers won.


Burton, an All-American, came through again in what has been the most satisfying--as well as emotionally and physically demanding--season of her remarkable career. And if Burton can keep herself going a little longer, the 49ers might be raising their third national-title banner.

The defending Division I champion 49ers (25-5) play host to Montana (25-5) at 3 p.m. Sunday in a second-round NCAA Northwest Region match, the first one in The Pyramid.

Not surprisingly, Burton is well prepared.

“I know what this is all about,” she said. “I’ve been there and I know teams are going to come after us because we’re Long Beach.

“It’s a whole different game now, and that’s why I’ve got to step it up a little more at times like this.”

Step it up? As if this weren’t already going to be tough enough for Montana.

Burton, 22, has been among the nation’s elite players since becoming a starter as a sophomore. Her often overwhelming play is a key reason the 49ers won their fourth consecutive Big West title, tying the record established by Hawaii from 1987 to 1990.

She is second in the conference in total kills with 476, third with an average 4.45 per game and seventh in hitting percentage at .334. Long Beach is ranked seventh nationally by the American Volleyball Coaches Assn. and Volleyball Monthly magazine.


Factor in the departure of many talented seniors from last season’s title winner and the prominent role of several young players on this season’s squad and Burton’s presence, and accomplishments, loom large indeed.

The conference’s coaches noticed too. Monday, they selected Burton, 6 feet 1, player of the year.

“Nichelle is not just an awesome player, she’s a great person to play with,” said senior defensive specialist Prentice Perkins, the only other member of the four conference title teams.

“I got really frustrated with what was going on in the beginning of the year but Nichelle never did. She helped to keep me focused.”


Nothing major, Perkins said, but the team’s veterans were a little peeved by some of the newcomers’ early approach to their jobs. Coach Brian Gimmillaro praises Burton for her handling of the team.

“She’s truly an amazing person,” he said. “She cares about her teammates and is thoughtful about their feelings but, at the same time, she’s able to get the most out of her teammates.


“That type of understanding and competitiveness is difficult for anyone, and it’s very rare to develop in someone who’s only 22.”

Not that it has come easily. Responsibility can wear on people. Try be the driving force behind a nationally ranked team.

“There’s been a lot of pressure on me,” Burton said. “Prior to this year, I’ve always been surrounded by All-Americans, players of the year. I looked up to them and I knew I wasn’t the one who would have to put the ball away. I just had to do what I had to do.

“We still have a lot of talent, but we have a really young team and it’s up to me and a couple of other seniors to be leaders. I’m not saying it’s a bad feeling, it’s just different, and I think I’m handling it as well as I can at this point.”

Former 49er Danielle Scott feels for her friend.

“I knew it would be really different for her this year,” said Scott, the 1993 AVCA player of the year as a senior. “Usually, we had (a lot of) really experienced players.

“It’s different for them this year, but Nichelle is very determined. She’ll do whatever it takes.”


Burton said she has enough left for one last push.

In addition to her desire for another national title, Burton also wants to be national player of the year. Long Beach players have been selected four times, beginning with Tara Cross’ consecutive awards in 1988-89. Antoinnette White won in 1991.

Burton said continuing the legacy would be the perfect way to finish her career.

“If I had to do everything all over again,” Burton said, “I wouldn’t do it any other way.”