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Kemner Works to Help O.C. Diggers Take Root : Volleyball: By becoming an owner, she hopes to give the professional league a chance to make it big.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine leading your nation to Olympic glory but being unable to return to your homeland for employment because your country has no professional teams in your sport.

Such was the situation faced by Caren Kemner, who has played volleyball professionally in Italy, Brazil and Japan since leading the United States to a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics.

When Kemner heard about the three-year-old National Volleyball Assn., she decided to do all she could to help it prosper. She recently became a part-owner and player with the Orange County Diggers.

“I would like to see the pro league really take off,” she said. “It’s great to play at home.”

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Kemner is one of many U.S. national team players who have given up the big pay checks of the European and Japanese leagues in the past two years in favor of the fledgling NVA because the locations of its five West Coast teams enable them to remain close to the USA Volleyball training center in San Diego. With the 1996 Olympics around the corner, U.S. national team Coach Terry Liskevych has encouraged his players to sign with the NVA.

The Diggers, who finished 7-4 last year and lost in the NVA semifinals to the two-time champion San Diego Spikers, begin their season Dec. 2 against the San Jose Storm at 7:30 p.m. at Oakland College. The Diggers will play their first home match Dec. 15 against the Spikers at UC Irvine’s Bren Center.

Kemner said the league is a dream come true for many indoor volleyball players who don’t want to play on the beach, where there are established professional tours.

Among 11 U.S. national team players participating in the NVA this season are Paula Weishoff (Storm), Teee Williams (Spikers), Tammy Liley (Utah Predators) and Tara Cross-Battle (Sacramento Stars).

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“It’s going to improve the level of volleyball that we have because the [national team] players are going to compete against each other,” Kemner said. “It also [is an] opportunity for players coming out of college; if they don’t make the national team, their career is not over.”

Other players in the league are NCAA all-Americans and current and former pro beach players.

“Besides the U.S. team, this is the highest level of volleyball that you could possibly see in the United States,” said Al Gasparian, Digger coach.

Gasparian, who also coaches the six-time State champion Golden West College women’s team, could miss the Diggers’ first match if Golden West defeats Santa Monica in a Southern Regional playoff match Tuesday at Golden West and advances to the State tournament Dec. 1-3 at Cerritos.

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The U.S. national team players have similar scheduling difficulties. They will not practice with their NVA teams because they practice up to six days a week at the training center in San Diego.

“The biggest thing coaching-wise is just getting a system that blends everyone together. These players are top-notch in their field already, so it’s just getting a system that puts everybody’s best assets together,” Gasparian said.

Even though the national team players must hop flights out of San Diego every weekend to get to their NVA matches, Kemner said the situation is preferable to playing oversees.

“It’s much easier to take a two-hour flight than a 16-hour flight,” she said.

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Although the NVA makes most national team players’ lives easier logistically, it has not made their lives easier financially. In Europe, top players can make up to $100,000 in a season, but in the NVA, top players make about $15,000. Most NVA players make about $2,000 in a season.

“The money in the league is not great yet and everybody has other jobs,” Kemner said.

Like in all professional sports leagues, the driving forces behind revenue are ticket sales and sponsors. The Diggers averaged about 250 fans per match last season at Golden West College. The league high for attendance was the Utah Predators, who averaged about 2,000 at Salt Lake City Hunter High. This season, the Predators will play in a new, 5,000-seat arena at Salt Lake Community College.

The NVA recently signed a contract with SportsChannel, which will telecast eight matches this season and should increase the league’s profile with sponsors. A clothing manufacturer has agreed to create an apparel line, and a ball company and a magazine are associate sponsors, but the league lacks a title sponsor.

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“It’s tough to get sponsor dollars,” said Gary Wyma, Spikers owner. “I’ve got the best product in the world, I’ve got the right ages watching the games, and we’ve got the TV deal, but the sponsors haven’t come along yet.”

But Wyma, a real estate developer and record company owner, said the league owners are committed to funding it a while longer. They are hoping to expand with at least four more teams for next season and to be in a position to capitalize on the Olympics in Atlanta next year.

“After the Olympic Games there are going to be some new superstars and we would like to have enough money to get some of the superstars to come and play in our league,” said Gary Laird, director of merchandising and marketing.

Meanwhile, Kemner’s name is not a bad headline for the playbill.

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