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THE COLLEGES / IRENE GARCIA : Regals Nearing a Banner Year

The Cal Lutheran women’s volleyball team has a chance this weekend to accomplish what no other team has done at the school--win an NCAA championship.

Other programs have had success over the years but none has gone all the way in the NCAA.

The baseball team placed second in the Division III World Series in 1992 and the men’s basketball team has twice reached the round of 16 in the Division III tournament.

But an NCAA championship trophy has eluded the school.

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The volleyball team has the tools to change that. The Regals are talented enough to get through their next two matches and be crowned national champions.

Cal Lutheran (26-2), ranked fifth in Division III, faces ninth-ranked Wisconsin Whitewater (35-3) in the NCAA semifinals on Friday.

The other semifinal features four-time Division III champion Washington University (40-3) of St. Louis (40-3) and Ithaca College (41-2) of New York.

By reaching the semifinals, the Regals already have advanced farther than any other team in the program’s history. Previously, Cal Lutheran had not advanced past the regional tournament.

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The Regals beat UC San Diego in the regional final on Nov. 11 and John Carroll of Ohio in a quarterfinal on Nov. 18.

“We’re peaking at a perfect time,” outside hitter Tara Thomas said. “I think we can play even better than we have been. We didn’t play our best against John Carroll.”

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It seems as if Cal Lutheran has had one big peak of a season. The Regals were 12-0 in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and have won 10 consecutive matches. The team hasn’t lost since Oct. 17.

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“It has already been the biggest accomplishment all of us have experienced even though we feel we can do better,” Coach James Park said. “It’s been very exciting so far.”

But with all the success, there have been hard times. The Regals have faced plenty of adversity.

At the start of the season, senior middle blocker Kelli McCaskill was ruled ineligible because she was entering her 11th semester of college. NCAA rules dictate that athletes must complete their eligibility in 10.

“A big blow,” Park said at the time. “ Huge !”

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But the team regrouped and got through it. The Regals also held up through an assortment of injuries.

Jennifer Pappas, a starting middle blocker after McCaskill went out, suffered a back injury that sidelined her for nine matches. Outside hitter Darcy White filled in.

“It was a heartbreaker when we found out Kelli couldn’t play, then when Jennifer went down it was terrible,” White said. “It was tough for me because I’m not a middle blocker.”

But the Regals hung on and got through it. They also have survived numerous other bumps and bruises, including a dislocated finger to Thomas, an outside hitter, setter Liz Martinez’s knee and ankle injuries, defensive specialist Kim Bauser’s bad knee and outside hitter Tracy Little’s stomach injury.

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Sounds more like the disabled list than the starting lineup of a championship contender.

“A lot of us are playing in pain,” White said. “But after our first playoff game, James [Parks] said, ‘Pain is temporary and losing is forever.’ That really stuck to us.”

Park knows exactly what to say to get his team pumped up. He is an excellent motivator known for turning ailing programs into winners. When he was hired at Cal Lutheran in 1993, the Regals had not had a winning season since 1987.

In his first year on the job, he led the team to a 14-13 record. Last season the Regals made it to the final 16 and finished with a 20-9 record, 11-1 in SCIAC play.

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Now Park has his team on a title track. It hasn’t really hit him yet and he doesn’t expect it to until the season is over.

“I haven’t even thought about a national title,” he said. “Winning it certainly would be a landmark, but I can’t think about that.”

Even though he and his team have a great chance of bringing home the school’s first NCAA trophy.


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