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If at First You Don't Impress . . . : UCI's Kris Roberts Tries Again, Gains Volleyball Success

October 20, 1987|JOHN WEYLER | Times Staff Writer

It's the favorite daydream of a lot of high-school athletes who don't fit into the "blue-chip" category. A college coach comes to scout one of the team's stars but it's the star of the fantasy who steals the spotlight and ends up with the scholarship.

Mike Puritz, the UC Irvine women's volleyball coach, went to watch Irvine High School's team one day in 1984. And junior Kris Roberts--hardly a standout on that star-studded Vaqueros squad--caught his eye.

It wasn't exactly love at first sight, however.

"The first time I saw her, she was one of the worst volleyball players I'd ever seen," Puritz said.

So much for Cinderella stories. But Irvine High is close to UCI, so Roberts got a couple of more chances to impress Puritz.

Still, no rave reviews.

"The next time I saw her, at the start of her senior year, she was a 'maybe,' " he said. "By the end of her senior year, she was decent."

Roberts did have a couple of things going for her, though. She was tall and, well . . . OK, one thing going for her: She was 6-feet 4-inches.

"I never considered her a good volleyball player," Puritz said. "She just was able to use her size to help a good team. I knew she'd be a project."

And not a small one at that, as Puritz quickly realized.

"The first thing we do after everyone reports is run a timed mile," he said. "She couldn't run one lap without stopping, yet alone the whole mile.

"Then we go into the weight room and she can't even bench press the (45-pound) bar without any weights on it."

Puritz may have been questioning her future as a volleyball player. Roberts was mourning its passing.

"We hadn't done much conditioning in high school and the mile run really psyched me out," she said. "Then I couldn't even lift the bar. I was so embarrassed. For a while, I went home every night exhausted with aching muscles and flopped down and cried out of sheer frustration."

Roberts wept but she didn't quit. By the end of her freshman year, she could run a seven-minute mile. She now bench presses 140 pounds.

However, she's done more than improve her stamina and strength in the last 2 1/2 years. Irvine's middle blocker has progressed from freshman flop to the top of the Anteater charts.

Roberts holds UCI records for most solo blocks (6) and block assists (11) in a game. She holds the single-season record for blocks (87). And she's just 28 short of the school's career solo block record and 20 shy of the career block assist mark with a season and a half to play.

She is currently ranked third in the nation in blocking average (1.81).

"Kris has developed into one of the dominant tall players in the game," San Diego State Coach Rudy Suwara said. "Whenever we prepare for Irvine, she's the one we advise our players to hit away from."

Roberts' primary role is to stop the other team from scoring, but she's become a proficient offensive player as well. The UCI season record for hitting percentage (determined by dividing successful spikes by attempted spikes) is .336, and Roberts is hitting at a .376 clip, the 19th-highest mark in the country.

"Her improvement in terms of strength and coordination has been the biggest factor, of course," Puritz said. "But her confidence level is way up there now, too.

"She's always been a good blocker. She was in the top 10 in the country in blocking both her freshman and sophomore years, but she's never been very strong offensively. She's really worked on her offensive techniques."

Her future in volleyball began to look brighter soon after her embarrassing debut with the Anteaters. She decided to channel her frustration, and the tracks of her tears soon were replaced by streaks of perspiration.

"I really hit the weight room," she said. "I pushed myself and pushed myself. I wanted to be the starting middle blocker as a sophomore and I earned it."

Her torment hadn't ended, though. Last season was UCI's Fall of Frustration. The Anteaters overall record was 7-26, and 1-17 in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn.

"The team was pretty good . . . really," Roberts said. "We won most of our nonleague games. And we were that close to knocking off some of the teams in our league. We were just on the edge."

The Anteaters (7-8, 2-6) have already equaled last season's win total and everyone is already looking forward to next season.

The first time Roberts ever played volleyball, she was a freshman at Irvine High.

"I hated it," she said, smiling. "I was so uncoordinated, I couldn't even hit the ball. I quit the team and went out for basketball. I'd never played that, either, but at least I could block shots, so I got some form of satisfaction."

By the end of her sophomore year, however, Roberts was "sick of basketball." Her athletic skills had progressed to the point where she thought giving volleyball a second chance was a good idea.

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