For Burdine, This Is the Life

Times Staff Writer

You could say that Keao Burdine has volleyball etched into her DNA, and it wouldn't be far from the truth.

"She was bouncing around in me when I was playing," said her mother, Pam. "And I played late into my pregnancy. At least seven or eight months in."

Volleyball is life for USC's standout outside hitter -- and also the rest of the Burdine clan. Consider the thousands of practices and matches the five children have been and will be shuttled to, the many players and teams the parents have coached, and the times the entire family piled into a car and headed to the beach from their Pico Rivera home.

As they usually are, the Burdine family will be in the crowd this weekend at the Long Beach Arena, watching Keao, the second-oldest among five siblings, try to close out her stellar college career by leading the Trojans to their third consecutive NCAA Division I national championship. USC plays Minnesota in a semifinal tonight at 7:30. The title match is Saturday at 1 p.m.

"There'll be about 40 to 50 of us," Pam Burdine said. "She'll hear us and she'll know who each one is that's yelling."

They'll come wearing homemade shirts with "Special K" emblazoned on them. The sight can be a source of inspiration for Keao -- and a little embarrassment for a player reluctant to be the object of focus.

"She doesn't like talking about herself," USC Coach Mick Haley said. "I think she could have been here for four years and never said a word and worked her tail off the entire time. I think she just likes the feeling of playing."

The results speak for her. If there is a defining part of Burdine's four years at USC, it is her knack for playing her best when the stakes are highest -- she has been chosen most valuable player in the NCAA tournament the last two seasons.

As a sophomore, she came of age in the Final Four in New Orleans, leading the Trojans to their first NCAA title in 21 years. Last year, she was part of perhaps one of the best women's college volleyball teams ever and her 23-kill performance in the title match against Florida helped USC cap a 35-0 season.

Despite the losses of top players April Ross, Katie Olsovsky, Toni Anderson and Nicole Davis, the Trojans (23-5) are back in the Final Four this season largely because of Burdine's performance in the regional final against Nebraska.

Burdine, who is 6 feet 1, had 30 kills and 30 defensive digs, both match-bests, in a five-game thriller in which the Trojans ousted the top-seeded Cornhuskers.

And the individual honors just keep rolling in. She was chosen first-team All-American for the first time Wednesday by the American Volleyball Coaches Assn.

But she doesn't think the many accolades are a big deal. "It's about the whole team," Burdine said. "Not just me."

Others are impressed. Washington Coach Jim McLaughlin has seen enough of her for four seasons.

"I know she's one of my favorite players to watch," said McLaughlin, whose Huskies play Stanford today at 5:30 in the other semifinal. "She's good when it really counts and I think she's still getting better. You've got to defend her with a lot of people, but you also can't let her take you out of your system."

Whether she's playing at the beach, the sand court at a nearby park, a sweaty gymnasium, an air-conditioned arena, in front of thousands of cheering spectators or before a curious onlooker or two, for Burdine there is volleyball and, well ...

"I don't know what I'd do if I weren't playing," she said. "Even now, with college coming to an end, it's kind of weird. I'll be going to school and just kind of having a regular life.

"I don't want a normal life."

Said Haley: "For her, volleyball is just part of her well-being."

It has always been there. Her parents, Pam and Paul, played while growing up and the two became close when he was a young assistant coach at Cypress College and she was one of his players.

Married for 22 years, they have nurtured their children in the game. Bonnee, the oldest, played at Hawaii Pacific. Kawika, 19, is a sophomore outside hitter at UC Santa Barbara. Harmony, 16, and Komaka, 14, are next in line.

Their expertise extends to their community. Pam coaches the boys' and girls' teams at Whittier Pioneer High. Paul is the varsity boys' coach at Whittier. Together, they also have run the Fusion Volleyball Club for the last 17 years.

"A typical weekend is volleyball, volleyball, volleyball," Pam Burdine said. "If it's not practice, it's taking someone to a match. Or it's both. Mom and dad will split up, one goes here and one goes there.

"I just bought a new car in the last year and it's got 30,000 miles on it. Sometimes we've had to sacrifice holidays or birthday parties."

But for Keao, who as a youngster would entertain herself for hours by hitting a ball against a wall, there is no hint of burnout. She has goals of a professional career on the beach and Olympic dreams. She isn't about to stop now.

"I've kind of gotten used to being tired all the time," she said. "I like it too much."


Women's Volleyball

* What: NCAA women's volleyball championship

* Where: Long Beach Arena

* Tonight's semifinals: Stanford (28-6) vs. Washington (28-2), 5:30 p.m. (ESPN2, 8 p.m.); USC (23-5) vs. Minnesota (32-4), 7:30 p.m. or 30 minutes after conclusion of first match (ESPN2, Friday, 1 p.m.)

* Championship: Saturday, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

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