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LONG BEACH STATE NOTEBOOK / JASON REID : Volleyball Season Has Strange Finish

It was a great run: For the last four seasons, the Big West Conference women’s volleyball championship belonged to Long Beach State. No Big West opponent could handle the 49ers.

This season, barring a last-second collapse by Hawaii or UC Santa Barbara, the 49ers will finish in an unfamiliar position: third . . . or fourth. Still, a top-four finish in the Big West would bring smiles and contract extensions to most coaches.

However, first place is expected at Long Beach. Such is the life of a perennial national power.

“The expectations . . . . we’ve made them so high,” Coach Brian Gimmillaro said.

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Long Beach (17-6, 11-3 in the Big West) trails Hawaii (23-0, 14-0) and UC Santa Barbara (20-5, 13-1) with four conference matches remaining. Included for the 15th-ranked 49ers are back-to-back matches with the second-ranked Rainbows at Honolulu on Nov. 16 and 17.

“It will be very tough,” Gimmillaro said.

Long Beach and Hawaii (1987-90) are the only teams to win four consecutive Big West titles. The 49ers won 68 of 72 conference matches (94%) during their streak. They also played in four regional finals, three Final Fours and won the 1993 national title.

Mathematically, they’re still in the conference title race, but reality indicates the contrary.

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“The only feeling I want is to own that title again,” Gimmillaro said. “I would love to get these young women back there, but you have to give the other teams credit. There are a lot of good programs out there.”

The 49ers’ main challenge now comes from Pacific. The Tigers (17-7, 11-4) are a game behind. The teams play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pyramid.

This semi-fall isn’t a mystery. Gimmillaro knew Long Beach would have its problems. A roster full of freshmen will do that.

But Gimmillaro couldn’t factor in the effect of injuries. Sophomore outside hitter Kristin Harris is a redshirt after reaggravating a knee injury. Shawnee Hayes, a junior defensive specialist, left the program and school because of a medical condition.

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Gimmillaro won’t make excuses, but those losses were devastating.

"[Harris and Hayes] were really symbolic of our style and attitude,” Gimmillaro said. “Losing those two changed the style of our team. We just don’t have the ball movement and ball control I thought we could have.

“So people who really weren’t prepared to play have had to play key roles, and it shouldn’t have been their turn yet.”

Long Beach fans shouldn’t get too down, though. The freshman class is great and Gimmillaro will sign his usual share of talented recruits.

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The drought could end quickly.

“This is hard,” Gimmillaro said, “but it’s all part of the growing process.”

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Top player: Brita Schwerm, senior outside hitter, team captain and All-American candidate, is playing as well as Gimmillaro had hoped.

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“She is the best all-around player in the nation,” Gimmillaro said. “I know there are a lot of coaches who probably feel the same way about their players, but I haven’t seen a passer in the nation as good as she is.”

The numbers support his claim.

Schwerm, twice chosen as Big West player of the week, is second in the conference in digs per game (3.50), kills per game (3.50) and third in hitting percentage (.348).

She should finish high in the voting for Big West player of the year. A 49er has been selected national player of the year three times, and Gimmillaro believes Schwerm has a shot, albeit slim.

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“We’d have to have a tremendous finish,” he said. “We’d probably have to make it to the final four.”

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Bigger is better: Rasul Salahuddin, senior guard and showman, likes to take chances. He gambles often for steals, and was among the conference’s leaders with an average of 2.1 last season.

But his risk-taking worked because 6-foot-10 center Joe McNaull made opponents hesitate if they got past Salahuddin. Although McNaull has departed, Salahuddin said he won’t have to change his style.

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He likes the potential of forwards Akeli Jackson (6-8) and Marcus Johnson (6-9). And he wants to see them in the lineup together--often.

“Akeli and Marcus are two big athletes who can move,” Salahuddin said. “They can help me recover when I gamble, and every time a shot goes up they go to the glass real well.

“We’re going to have to change our team style a little bit because we’re smaller this season. We’re going to have to run more, and the thing about it is they can both run.”


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