While attending the University of Las Vegas-Nevada in the spring of 1986, Judy Bellamo got a lucky break.
Bellamo's good fortune came not with a prosperous roll of the dice, but from UNLV's decision to drop the women's volleyball program in which she had participated for two seasons.
Some players considered the program's cancellation an athletic death sentence. Others, such as Bellamo, used the opportunity to transfer to a stronger program without losing eligibility.
The two seasons of Division I experience helped Bellamo land a scholarship to play at UC Santa Barbara in time for the 1986 season.
Bellamo, who is 5-10, since has become an integral part of the Gauchos team. She set a single-season school record with 87 blocking assists last season as a junior and is averaging more than 20 kills per match this season.
All of which is a surprise to her coach.
"If you would have told me two years ago that she would play professionally, I would have said 'No way,' " Santa Barbara Coach Kathy Gregory said. "She was a perfect example of an athlete that got no respect. But Judy has given all it takes to become the best possible athlete."
She is expected to be a top selection later this month when Major League Volleyball, a professional indoor league, selects players for its second season.
Bellamo, 21, graduated from Glendale High in 1984, and since then she has come a long way. The Dynamiters were hardly the toast of Southern Section volleyball and Division I recruiters weren't knocking down Bellamo's door. She even considered attending a junior college but signed with Las Vegas. She has impressed every coach along the way with solid work habits.
"She works harder than any girl I've coached in 12 years," Gregory said.
But the toil has taken its toll.
Even while at Glendale, Bellamo believed a game's outcome was a reflection of her abilities alone. She became easily frustrated, and her courtside manners often resembled those of John McEnroe. The reviews were unfavorable.
"She used to be very hot-headed and head-strong," said her father, Frank Bellamo. "I can see such a tremendous difference in her now. She used to think that she had to carry the whole team."
To a degree, she still does.
Outside hitter Yami Menendez is the only other senior who starts on the inexperienced Gaucho squad.
"I feel like we have to put the ball away," Bellamo said. "I've always been real aggressive, always talking. I feel like I'm more in control.
"I worry about the freshmen being so nervous. So, I try not to be overbearing."
The new demeanor has made her the team's leader and captain this season. Often, she circles the court, slapping hands and shouting words of support to younger, inexperienced players.
"I'm sure she has a lot of pressure on her this year," said Pepperdine Coach Nina Matthies, whose team defeated UCSB in the season opener for both teams. "She has to do everything perfect."
Perhaps too much of her concentration is focused on the Gauchos' side of the net.
"Sometimes she lets her emotions take hold of her," said Pat Zartman, who coached the L.A. Starlights to the first Major League Volleyball championship last season. "Sometimes it can distract you from what you are trying to accomplish.
"But she seems to be a person who is totally in it all the time. She has a tremendous amount of ability. She gives 100% when she's playing, and it's the same thing in practice."