They may not lead the conference in brawn, but there's a good chance that the Matadors of Cal State Northridge are near the top of the Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Assn. when it comes to brains.
Of the Matadors' six starters, three major in engineering, one in physics, one in economics and the other in psychology. On the bench are three more engineering majors, another psychology student and a sociology major.
How smart are these guys?
Smart enough to know that the odds they will beat UCLA, Pepperdine or USC are about the same as the Broncos starting Gary Kubiak at quarterback in the Super Bowl. Mike Bird of Northridge put it this way: "We may not win a lot of games, but at least we'll have something to fall back on when we stop playing volleyball."
A comforting thought.
Bird, a senior, speaks from experience. He's seen the Matadors get lost in volleyball's version of the Bermuda Triangle time and again. Northridge has never won a match against UCLA, Pepperdine or USC--the nation's top three teams in preseason polls.
UCLA, which has won 11 NCAA championships since 1970, has five starters back from last year's 30-9 team, including outside hitter Asbjorn Volstad, a two-time All-American.
The only newcomer to the Bruins' starting lineup is 6-6 freshman Trevor Schirman, the nation's top recruit a year ago.
Pepperdine, winner of the last two national titles, has two preseason All-Americans in outside hitters Troy Tanner and Matt Rigg.
USC, which has lost to Pepperdine in the final the last two years, is led by 6-7 middle blocker Tom Duke and outside hitter Adam Johnson, both preseason All-Americans.
And Northridge? The Matadors counter with a senior who didn't play volleyball until college and two sophomores who were so bad two years ago that their teammates begged that they be removed from the team.
What's worse, Northridge won't ease into the conference season. The Matadors open Tuesday night at Pepperdine, then play Friday night at USC.
CSUN Coach John Price has learned to do without top recruits.
"If a kid is good enough to go play at UCLA or Pepperdine or USC, that's where he goes," Price said. "What we do is get good athletes who are basically untrained, take three years to teach them, and by the time they are juniors or seniors they're ready. That's why we're always a step behind."
Bird is a perfect example. The CSUN captain played basketball at Calabasas High and Pierce College before being discovered by former Northridge assistant Dave Rubio at a girls summer league game at Calabasas.
Rubio asked Bird to try out after watching him set for the girls in practice. Bird had gone to the game to officiate.
Bird has been Northridge's starting setter for the last three years, but Price has moved him to outside hitter to take advantage of his passing skills. Bird received honorable mention on the Volleyball Monthly preseason All-American team.
Replacing Bird at setter will be Tom Ribarich, a sophomore whose brother, John, was a two-time All-American at Hawaii.
Scott Brecker and Andrew Greskovics are the other outside hitters. Brecker and Bird are the only seniors on the team. Greskovics is a sophomore who has missed the last two seasons with injuries.
The middle blockers are Jeff McClean and Ron Graening--a pair of sophomores who were rather unpopular as redshirt freshmen two years ago.
"There were guys on the team pleading with me to cut them," Price recalled. "They were so bad the guys were afraid they might hurt someone."
McClean came out of Crespi High, which has no volleyball program. "He came in and asked for a tryout," said Price, who only turns away 6-5, 230-pound people if they can't walk and clap their hands simultaneously.
"He was as raw a player as they come," Price said. "But physically, he's an animal."
Graening is from Canoga Park High, a school not known for having a strong volleyball program, but he is 6-6, 200.
Bird is the only starter back from last year's team that upset UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State--two top 10 teams--in a 17-19 season that included a 6-14 conference record.
"Physically, we're more talented than last year," Price said, "but last year we had guys who had played three years together. They got beat up for two years just learning."
Bird said Northridge needs to improve its mental game more than anything else.
"It's a matter of concentration," he said. "The best teams take advantage of every mistake."
And while Northridge doesn't fancy itself a threat to any of the top three teams, the Matadors would like to upset one of the teams currently sitting one rung below.
Cal State Long Beach, Hawaii, Stanford and Santa Barbara are also ranked in the top 10 by Volleyball Monthly.
"Northridge has never made the regionals, but somewhere along the line they always have a say about who does," said Pepperdine Coach Rod Wilde. "They always knock someone off."
And if not this year, then maybe soon.
Along with starting four sophomores, the Matadors are redshirting two more highly regarded players.
Jeff Campbell, a 6-7 middle blocker who started at UCLA as a freshman three years ago, is responding well to therapy for his chronically sore knees.
Bob Samuelson, a 6-5 outside hitter, enrolled at Northridge after leading Pierce College to the state JC championship. He was heavily recruited by USC.
Ribarich, who played on high school championship teams at Palisades, is convinced Northridge is only a little experience--and Campbell and Samuelson--away from being one of the WIVA's top teams.
"Two years from now we're going to make the regionals and be the strongest team in Cal State Northridge history," he said.
This year, however, they'll probably have to settle for considerably less.