It's been two years since Jeff Williams played volleyball, however sparingly, on an NCAA championship team at UCLA. UCLA Coach Al Scates' teams have never gone more than two years without winning an NCAA championship.
If UCLA's formula for winning volleyball holds up, this should be the year for another NCAA title for Scates. He has won 11 in the 17 years that volleyball has been an NCAA sport.
Both Williams, now a senior, and Scates think that 1987 will be the year of the 12th.
"This is UCLA's year," said Williams, a 6-1 swing hitter from Santa Monica High School. "Al said that in a television interview, and we have six solid starters."
Scates also said as much in an interview with a Times reporter. "Definitely," he said when asked if his team can win another national championship after losing out to two-time defending NCAA champion Pepperdine.
"We have never gone longer than two years without winning an NCAA championship," said the coach, who is in his 25th season at UCLA, seasons that included two other national titles when the college sport was administered by the U.S. Volleyball Assn.
And after last year, Scates didn't plan to go three years without another. "We got started a little earlier this year--about two weeks earlier. And I've worked the team harder than usual.
"A month ago we couldn't have beaten Pepperdine in Malibu, but we did last week, although it took some doing."
At UCLA in late February, the Bruins defeated the Waves in four close games. At Pepperdine's Firestone Fieldhouse last Thursday, UCLA again triumphed, but it took the Bruins five games and about three hours to do it. The scores were 15-11, 15-12, 16-18, 15-19, 15-10.
With that pivotal victory, the Bruins ran their overall record to 27-3 and are 11-0 and the only unbeaten team in the Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Assn.
With seven WIVA matches remaining, UCLA is in a commanding position to win the conference title and an automatic berth in the NCAA playoff semifinals. And they will be in a commanding spot to win it all because the semifinals and finals will be played May 1 and 2 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.
Williams has one national title to look back on and is looking forward to winning another. "I was a member of the 1984 team, but I didn't really contribute. That team went 38-0 and may have been the best collegiate volleyball team of all time.
"But winning a championship this year would make my life."
Other Bruin senior starters are Arne Lamberg, a 6-9 technique man from Kailua, Hawaii, and Asbjorn Volstad, a 6-4, three-time All-American swing hitter from Norway.
The first six also includes junior quick hitter Don Dendinger (6-6) from Santa Barbara, sophomore setter Matt Sonnichsen (6-5) from Spring, Tex., and freshman quick hitter Trevor Schirman (6-6) from Waimanolo, Hawaii, the nation's top recruit last year and a strong addition to the Bruins.
The 6-1 Williams more than holds his own in such fast--and tall--company. He is one of the team's best hitters, has the best vertical leap (38 inches) of any Bruin and is also one of the strongest. He can squat lift 364 pounds and bench press 285.5, the best marks on the team.
But he might not have been around to help his teammates shoot for an NCAA championship if he hadn't begun raising his grade-point average at the start of his sophomore year.
"I had big study problems," he said. "Going into my second year, I was going to flunk out of school. Scates did not really have me in his plans, but I promised him I would make good grades."
He made his grades that fall and Scates made him a starter, but he said that he played "inconsistently" that year. Last season, though bothered by a sore knee, he was more consistent. He led the team in service aces with 26, came up with a season-high 22 digs against USC and recorded a season-high 32 kills against Hawaii.
He said that he never touched a volleyball till he went out for the Santa Monica High School varsity in his sophomore year. He added that he learned the game from Gary Sato, a past college All-American and a member of a family that has produced several star volleyball players. Sato is chief assistant to Marv Dunphy, coach of the U.S. national team, who is on leave as Pepperdine's coach.
If Williams learned the finer points of the game from Sato, he learned how to be aggressive and competitive when he was playing sophomore basketball at Santa Monica High under Cliff Hunter, now coach of the school's varsity.
He said that when he came out for basketball and began practicing, Hunter asked him, "Are you from a rich family?"
"No," he answered. And Hunter told him, "Well you play like a rich kid."
He said he realized Hunter was trying to teach him that you can't be afraid of getting your uniform dirty if you want to help your team win. Williams quit basketball after his sophomore year to concentrate on volleyball, but he said that he played volleyball "a lot harder, dirtier, more aggressively."