Loyola Marymount University's winning of the West Coast Athletic Conference women's volleyball title to clinch its first appearance in the NCAA tournament was a large step for Loyola and the latest in a series of small steps for Coach Nancy Fortner.
Fortner has guided the team for six years, from infancy at the small-school level to a successful Division I squad. The Lions won the WCAC title with a 10-2 record and are 23-7 overall.
"Four years ago we started making the transition to Division I. Every year we've gotten a little bit better," Fortner said. "We've had a few setbacks but we've been able to come back a little step higher from each of those plateaus."
Loyola got some help from U.S. International University to clinch the title. The Lions entered the last weekend of conference play tied with Pepperdine, a game ahead of USIU. The Gulls knocked off Pepperdine on Friday night while Loyola was dispatching San Diego to set up Saturday's match as the conference clincher. USIU could have created a three-way tie with a victory.
USIU took a 2-1 lead, but Loyola, cheered on by a loud, increasingly emotional crowd, came back to win the fourth game, 15-12, then swept through the final game, 15-3, setting off a celebration as students, parents and alumni ran onto the floor. Senior setter Andrea Fort, hitters Leslie Wohlford and Tiffany Miller and Cathy Petrissans and back-row specialist Seham Khalaf were standouts.
Even Fortner, who is generally stoic on the bench, reacted strongly to plays in the final two games. "It seems like in the past I was always telling everybody, 'We're young.' This year we're not young. The experience paid off. The kids have worked hard. They showed a lot of heart. There were times in this match I wasn't sure. There were times this year I wasn't sure. We've had a lot of five-game matches."
Unlike the past, Loyola and Fortner entered the season expecting to do well. "There was a certain amount of expectancy this year," she said. "We used to hope we could win. This year we went out and played like we could win."
It could be something Loyola gets used to. Petrissans is a junior, Wohlford and Khalaf are sophomores. Only Fort and hitter Maryann Dunn graduate.
The Lions open NCAA play next week at a site to be determined. Whatever their tournament fate, it has already been a special season.
Monica Krpan knew it wasn't going to be easy following Charlene (Sharkie) Zartman as the women's volleyball coach at El Camino College.
After all, Zartman led the Warriors to a 38-1 season last year and was named Metropolitan Conference women's coach of the year. She had guided the Warriors to seven league titles and two state championships since 1977.
But when Zartman took a two-year leave of absence, Krpan was ready to fill in. And Krpan, who had worked as an assistant coach at the college for four years and has known Zartman since she was 12, must have learned something from the successful coach. The Warriors are gearing up for the state championships after going 14-1 overall and 11-0 in the Metropolitan Conference.
"It was comfortable. We run things very similarly," Krpan said. "We've been successful and worked hard."
And Krpan says she just likes to let the players do it all. With the talent she has, you can't blame her.
Krpan was quick to credit middle blocker Kristi Reinert who leads the conference with a .510 hitting percentage and an average of 3.1 down blocks a game.
But the Warriors' strength doesn't stop with Reinert. Krpan said she has been impressed with the play of Denna Rawie, an outside hitter. "She hits about 80% of our sets and does a real good job," Krpan said.
Krpan also credited setters Debbie Rutherford, who has averaged 15 assists a game, and Michele Trevino, who averages 12 assists. "She (Trevino) is a stabilizing force for our team," Krpan said.
One of the keys to a successful season for the Pepperdine basketball team is sophomore center Casey Crawford, the 6-11 string bean out of Leuzinger High. Crawford attended Pepperdine last year but did not play. But he's expected to be Coach Jim Harrick's opening day center Saturday against Oklahoma State.
Harrick says Crawford, a gangly late bloomer in high school, is still "a project" but could become a solid collegiate center. The Waves have worked at bulking up Crawford, who is still skinny at 220 pounds. Crawford weighed in at well under 200 in high school.
"He's up to skinny," Harrick cracked. "When we got him he was a No. 2 pencil."