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One for the Road : CLU’s Title Drive Rolls On After Win Over San Diego

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a major obstacle now in her rear-view mirror, the road ahead looks like smooth going for volleyball player Tara Thomas.

Actually, that’s probably how everyone associated with the Cal Lutheran women’s team feels after the defeat of powerful UC San Diego in the final of last week’s NCAA Division III West Regional.

“The biggest psychological test for us was beating San Diego,” said Thomas, a senior opposite hitter. “Now we feel we can go all the way.”

Having advanced to the NCAA Division III championship tournament, Cal Lutheran, ranked No. 5 in the country, will play John Carroll University in the quarterfinals Saturday at the Don Shula Sports Center in University Heights, Ohio. The Regals are 25-2 and John Carroll, the Great Lakes Regional champion, is 27-11 and unranked nationally.

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If the Regals win Saturday, they will meet the winner of a match between St. Olaf College (32-7) of Northfield, Minn., and the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater (34-3) in the semifinal Dec. 1 at a site to be determined. The championship match is scheduled for the next day.

San Diego has been the Regals’ worst nightmare. In the 1994 West Regional, the six-time NCAA Division III champion Tritons defeated Cal Lutheran in the championship game.

This season San Diego was one of two teams to beat the Regals and the only one to do it in Cal Lutheran’s gym. It was a quick three-game sweep on Oct. 17. That was the last loss for Cal Lutheran, which has a nine-match winning streak.

Payback was sweet, Thomas said, especially because the victory took place on San Diego’s home court, the new and lavish RIMAC Arena. Cal Lutheran won, 16-14, 18-16, 10-15, 15-6.

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“The arena itself was overwhelming,” Thomas said. “It was really intimidating because it’s huge . We’ve never played in anything like that before.”

Thomas, the Regals’ best all-around player, had a school record 32 digs in Saturday’s match. She is Cal Lutheran’s all-time career dig leader (1,008) and ranks third in kills (513), fifth in assists (398) and seventh in aces (56).

For emphasis, she ended the match against San Diego with an ace.

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She is so versatile that in her four seasons at Cal Lutheran she has played three positions.

“She is the team’s unsung hero,” Coach James Park said. “She’s not the kind of player that really stands out, but she’s very reliable and very consistent.”

Thomas, 21, was an outside hitter as a freshman and part of her sophomore season. She switched to setter because the team’s starting setter suffered an ankle injury. As a junior Thomas switched back to outside hitter, and this season she has competed at opposite-side hitter. She is also the team’s backup setter.

“I’m used to switching around,” Thomas said. “In high school I even played middle blocker and I’m only 5 feet 6. I’m glad, though, that I haven’t had to play middle blocker in college.”

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Thomas also competes on Cal Lutheran’s track team. As a sophomore she won the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title in the 400 meters. As a junior she placed second in the SCIAC in the high jump. Thomas also runs on the mile- and 400-meter relay teams.

Park says even in high school Thomas was quick and a good jumper. Park coached Thomas and her sister, Amy, now a setter at San Francisco State, at Moorpark High.

“Her best attribute is that she is very athletic,” Park said. “That’s why she can adjust to all the different positions.”

Many coaches in the SCIAC view Thomas as a steady force on a team that is known for its consistency and tough defense.

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After the Regals swept Whittier twice this season, what most stuck in Coach Kristi Vandenberg’s mind was Cal Lutheran’s machine-like performance.

“They’re very sound and they don’t make many errors,” she said. “Tara Thomas epitomizes that team.”

By making it to the NCAA Division III quarterfinals, the Regals have done better than any other team in the program’s history.

“We’re so excited about going to the playoffs,” Thomas said. “And there’s no extra pressure because lots of people didn’t even expect us to get past San Diego. We’ve already gone a lot farther than anyone ever imagined we would.”

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