Twenty minutes before the Cal State Northridge women's volleyball team takes the court for its warm-up, the players sit quietly, in a darkened room, listening to music that begins softly and builds to a crescendo with the Olympic theme. The whole time, the players visualize performing their on-court tasks to perfection.
When the team finally emerges into the gym, junior setter Angela Brinton keeps her headphones on and her mind tuned in to Janet Jackson, who is belting out her song "Control."
The title is appropriate.
"The visualization process teaches you how to be in control of your own game," Brinton said. "I like having that control."
Brinton helped Northridge finish second last week at the NCAA Division II national championships in Sacramento. Her steady, if unspectacular, performance this season earned her first-team All-America honors.
It was an especially noteworthy award because Northridge, which has won four straight California Collegiate Athletic Assn. conference titles, usually has a stockpile of all-star players that have helped the Lady Matadors become a perennial Division II power.
But this season, CSUN had neither outside hitter Heather Hafner nor setter Shelli Mosby, both of whom were three-time All-Americans.
"Angela was the most important part of that team," said UC Riverside Coach Sue Gozansky, whose team beat CSUN in the championship, 15-9, 15-6, 15-6. "They've always had a star to rely upon. But this year, they really had to play as a team. Angela was responsible for that."
Responsibility is something that Brinton, 22, relishes. She has taken on more and more of it at each stop in her athletic career.
At Glendale High, she was a three-year All-Pacific League selection in volleyball, basketball and softball. During her senior volleyball season, she asked the coach if she could move from outside hitter to setter.
"As a hitter, you don't touch the ball every time and the only thing I had to think about was where I wanted to hit the ball," Brinton said.
"A setter has to deal with much more. The pass, what play to run and putting the ball in the best possible position so the hitters can do their thing. It's a big responsibility but I like it."
Brinton began to sharpen the fundamental skills used by a setter when she went to Glendale College, where Coach Dianne Spangler gave her a crash-course in the often-overlooked art of making your teammates look good.
"She has a lot of the qualities you look for in a setter," Spangler said. "You need someone who can handle it emotionally, mentally and physically.
"When Angela was here, I met with everyone on the team to explain their roles. I used a car as an example and I told Angela that she was going to be the engine of our team. The person who made things go."
Brinton was all-conference her freshmen year at Glendale. She played on a club team her second year--and saved a year of eligibility--when the college's program went on a one-year hiatus because of Spangler's health problems.
Meanwhile, at Northridge, Mosby was going to be a senior and CSUN Coach Walt Ker said he was "in the market for a player to train under Shelli."
Spangler invited Ker out to Glendale to watch Brinton play in a co-ed volleyball class.
"To be quite honest, we went out there with an attitude of, 'Oh well, we get a lot of calls like these,' " Ker said. "We're not typically impressed."
On the first play, Ker watched Brinton make a perfect one-hand set that was smashed into the opponent's court for a point.
"OK," Ker said. "I've seen enough."
Brinton, however, was in for a surprise at Northridge. She was used to setting--not sitting--but she found herself on the bench while Mosby had another great year.
"When I came out here, I thought I had as good of a chance as anyone to start," Brinton said. "When I saw Shelli play, things changed a little. The reason for my training was more out of a need to be prepared if Shelli got injured. I was going to use the year to learn and prepare."
The transition this season from Mosby to Brinton was smooth. Brinton is the kind of player who wants the ball when the point, game or match is on the line. As the setter in CSUN's 5-1 attack, she controls the offense and, in effect, the team's destiny.
"Her forte is deceiving the other team's middle blockers so the outside players will get a chance to hit against one blocker," said CSUN hitter Anna Garcia, who will return next season with Brinton and three other starters.
"She's not real emotional, but when we need that kind of jumping-around-yelling stuff, she comes up with it."
Brinton favors the low-key approach. She's able to practice the same discipline and mental quickness she uses on the court when she's working as a bank teller at Glendale Federal Savings.
"There's pressure and responsibility in both places," Brinton said. "At work in the bank, one little thing can throw you out of balance. The same thing can happen when you're a setter on a volleyball team. And everyone knows that I hate being out of balance."