OMAHA, Neb. — Angela Brinton wraps her right arm behind her back and wiggles her thumb and pinkie, signaling one of eight offensive plays that the Cal State Northridge women's volleyball team runs.
At Brinton's signal, two outside hitters rush the net. One hitter leaps in the air and fakes a spike, while the other slams a kill shot between two confused Cal State Sacramento blockers.
Moments later, Brinton hears the words that are music to any setter's ears.
"I love when the blockers are swearing in my ear," Brinton said. "That always puts a smile on my face because I know that I've done my job."
Brinton, a 23-year-old senior, has heard a lot of profanity this season originating from the other side of the net. From her teammates and CSUN Coach Walt Ker, she has heard nothing but praise.
"She has tremendous insight into how the offense should be run and a great awareness of what's going to occur on the court," Ker said. "There is no question that this is her best season."
Opposing coaches echo Ker's sentiment.
"I am really impressed with her play," said Jill Hirschinger, coach of Final Four participant Ferris State. "She's smart, quick, plays good defense and calls the right play at the right time."
Brinton's timing was right in the championship match against Sacramento in the NCAA Division II Western regional playoffs last weekend. She had 41 assists and led CSUN to its seventh consecutive berth in the NCAA Final Four, which begins here tonight.
When CSUN sputtered in the first game against Sacramento, Brinton served four consecutive points to rally Northridge from a 12-9 deficit. Her leadership and controlled play under pressure erased the only anxious moments of the match for the Lady Matadors.
"The better they are, the better we play," Brinton said. "It means so much more if we beat a great team."
Brinton's performance last weekend earned her a position on the all-regional team, yet another honor in a season punctuated by accolades.
A two-time All-American, Brinton was named Division II player of the year Thursday by the American Volleyball Coaches Assn. She will be honored at a banquet in Indianapolis next Thursday.
Brinton also was the most valuable player in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. and an All-CCAA first-team selection. She was named to the All-American first team for the second consecutive year at a banquet here Thursday night.
But despite the accolades, one goal eludes Brinton and CSUN--a national championship. Brinton has played on the past two CSUN teams that have finished runner-up in the NCAA title match. Northridge has been the runner-up in four of the past five years, including the past three.
"Initially, I think it would be devastating if we lost again," Brinton said. "But after a couple of days I think we would realize that we've had fun this year.
"I think we're better prepared for the nationals, physically and mentally this year. I use last year's loss for motivation. Thinking about how much Walt wants it is another motivational factor."
Brinton said CSUN was "emotionally flat" in last year's title match against UC Riverside. Northridge lost to the Highlanders after winning an exhausting five-game semifinal match against Nebraska-Omaha, host of the Final Four this weekend.
"I was ready, but I didn't feel like the team was ready," Brinton said.
Neither Brinton nor the Lady Matadors can afford to be unemotional in this year's Final Four.
To help win that elusive national title, Northridge has worked with Ann Stutts all season on visualization training and "mental practice."
The visualization sessions have helped Brinton focus on fulfilling her final goal.
"After we lost in nationals last year, it hit me how frustrating it all was," Brinton said. "I was determined to do whatever it took to win. If it meant working on my mental skills, I would do that."
Brinton was a winner long before she transferred to CSUN from Glendale College. At Glendale High, she was a three-time All-Pacific League selection in volleyball, basketball and softball. She moved from outside hitter to setter during her senior year and perfected her skills at Glendale College.
After being named All-Western State Conference her freshman year at Glendale, Brinton played on a club team as a sophomore when the school's program took a one-year hiatus because of Coach Dianne Spangler's health problems.
In her first year at Northridge, Brinton watched from the bench as three-time All-American Shelli Mosby capped off an outstanding career as CSUN setter. This weekend, Brinton will wind up her illustrious career as CSUN setter.
But before Northridge can play for the title, it must defeat Ferris State (Mich.) in the semifinals tonight. The Bulldogs will be one of the toughest teams CSUN has faced this season--just the way Brinton likes it.
"They're the best blocking team we've played," Brinton said. "It will be a real challenge for me, but I like that."