SAN DIEGO — Keba Phipps intends to become the volleyball version of Cheryl Miller--the world's best and most exciting player in her sport.
And that may be her most modest goal.
Phipps, 17, also hopes to appear in a future swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated en route to becoming an international fashion model, and then design expensive outfits for women jet-setters.
"I want to do so much it gives me brain damage," said Phipps, a 6-foot 3-inch Los Angeles native who last November became the youngest and most promising member of the U.S. women's volleyball team, which is based in San Diego.
Phipps and her teammates will play their first home match of the year at 7:30 tonight against world champion China in Peterson Gym at San Diego State. China defeated the United States to win the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics.
She joined the team last fall after deciding that she didn't want to attend college. She persuaded Coach Terry Liskevych, who was skeptical, that she was willing to adhere to his standards--athletic, academic and personal.
It wasn't easy. She had adjustment problems brought on by homesickness, pressure from coaches, teasing by teammates and a feeling of being 17-going-on-23.
"I want to stay young as long as I can," she said, admitting that she has grown used to having friends who are five and 10 years older, all of whom have been to college.
"I really don't have any friends my own age in San Diego--not one," said Phipps, who attended Artesia High School before leaving her Lakewood home and moving in with a foster family in Chula Vista. She is finishing work on a high school degree as a part-time student.
"I mean, I can't go to some local high school and say, 'Hi! Would you like to be my friend?' "
After several months of adjusting, Phipps has grown more comfortable with her situation.
"It's not easy to fit in with people who are five or six years older and more mature," teammate Michelle Boyette said. "There's a lot bigger difference in 17 and 22 than, say, 25 and 30, but it's been easier for all of us because Keba is so outgoing and vivacious.
"Don't let her fool you. She is a very street-wise young lady. She knows what is happening in the world. She has experienced a lot for a 17-year-old. And she definitely has the ability to become a great volleyball player."
There isn't much doubt about her athletic talent.
Although Liskevych is trying to lessen the pressure on Phipps by downplaying his expectations, she is convinced that she will become the world's foremost player.
"I know I can be the best in the world," she said matter-of-factly. "I really don't think about having any pressure on me. I know what I can do and what I can be."
That confidence is partly attributable to nearly five years of guidance from a former coach, Mollie Kavanagh of the Tiger Volleyball Club in Los Angeles.
"When she matures physically, it's hard to tell what she will be able to do," Kavanagh said. "Keba is such a great athlete, she probably could be the world record-holder in the high jump if she wanted. I always loved seeing her up there in the heavens."
Said Liskevych: "She does have the innate talent to be as dominant a net player as we have had. She is brilliant at times, but she is not consistent yet. It's going to take time, but I think by the Olympics she can be a very good player. I know I'm going to keep tightening the vise."
Coach and pupil are still testing one another but seem to have a mutual respect. She doesn't want to work as hard as he wants to push her, but she realizes that it's for her own good.
"All I have right now is potential," said Phipps, borrowing a phrase she must have heard 100 times from Liskevych.
She knows that means little right now.
Liskevych was apprehensive about accepting Phipps into the U.S. volleyball program last year.
"I had concerns about where she would live and how she would adjust," he said. "I don't regret my decision to take her, but it's been refreshing to know my original view of not including high school players was a good one.
"Keba's a real good kid. We've had to be tough on her, but we've also spent more time with her on the outside issues in her life than any other players on the team. Only now, after several months with us, is she realizing the inner drive it takes."
That notion is incomplete and misleading, according to Kavanagh, Phipps' biggest backer.
"Keba was totally prepared, and going to San Diego was just a natural progression for her," Kavanagh said. "I think it was harder for San Diego to realize how unusual and gifted she is than for Keba to adjust to being there.
"Their practices are no harder than ours (3 1/2 hours), just a little more frequent. We cracked the whip on her too. I just don't think they had any idea how much knowledge of volleyball she has. Heck, we were like a minor league team playing the Dodgers because we played college teams in open competition along with our regular schedule."