From 1987 through 1989, the UCLA women's volleyball teams bore the hallmark of three-time All-American middle blocker Daiva Tomkus, who has completed her eligibility and is trying out for the U.S. national team.
This season the leadership gap seems to have been filled mostly by outside hitter Natalie Williams, a second-team All-American last year.
Williams, a 6-foot-1 sophomore from Taylorsville, Utah, is leading the team with 348 kills and an average of 4.46 kills a game and has spurred the Bruins to a 21-1 overall record. UCLA, ranked No. 1 in the nation, is 13-0 in the Pacific 10 Conference.
In an important victory over fifth-ranked Stanford two weeks ago, she set school single-game records for kills with 37 and digs with 18. Last week she had a team-high 16 kills, six digs and four blocks as the Bruins defeated Oregon State in four games, and she added eight kills, three blocks, two service aces and two digs in a three-game sweep of Oregon. The victories over the Oregon schools extended UCLA's Pac-10 winning streak to 49 games.
Williams is getting plenty of help at the outside hitter position from junior Jenny Evans and senior Samantha Shaver. Sophomores Marissa Hatchett and Irene Renteria and freshman Lisa Hudak have filled in capably for Tomkus at middle blocker. Holly McPeak, a transfer from Berkeley, has provided experience and stability at setter. And there are others.
But there is little question that Coach Andy Banachowski has looked to Williams to lead the attack. The offense lost a good deal when junior outside hitter Elaine Youngs, a first-team All-American and a second-team selection in 1988, was lost for the season after she had knee surgery in August.
Banachowski said that he had planned to rely more on Williams this season by adding a backcourt attack, where she seems to perform best as a hitter.
Because of the losses of Tomkus and Youngs, he said, "we're not hitting as well as we did as a team. Each of the other players has (improved) her hitting percentage, but we're still not making up for their loss in (the team's) hitting.
"We're a lot less physical and athletic without Daiva and Elaine. We're smaller, but we're quicker and a lot better defensively than we were in previous years."
Shavers and Evans lead the team on defense with their digs.
He said that Williams "gives us the power we need. She is right on pace with last year. She started slowly, but she sure is hitting a lot more balls from the backcourt, which is a little bit more difficult. She also has a little bit more terminating power, being able to put the ball away.
"The responsibility, I think, is difficult for her at times. I ask a lot of her and expect a lot of her, but sometimes I forget she is only a sophomore and hasn't played that much volleyball."
Although she was an All-American in volleyball in high school in Taylorsville, a suburb of Salt Lake City, the club teams she played against in Utah and Nevada may not have been as strong or played as many matches as those in California, Banachowski said. She was also a high school All-American in basketball.
"That put her a little behind in volleyball," Banachowski said.
Williams said that basketball was her "first real sport." That shouldn't be surprising since her father, Nate, was a basketball standout at Utah State and played for years in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors and the New Orleans (now Utah) Jazz.
She averaged 30 points and 17 rebounds a game and led Taylorsville High to the state finals in her senior year and was named to the prep All-American teams of Street and Smith's magazine and USA Today.
Although UCLA women's basketball Coach Billie Moore wanted her to play for the Bruins last season, Williams said that she wanted to concentrate on her studies and volleyball. She said that she does plan to play basketball this season.
Jean Widdison, her volleyball coach at Taylorsville High, convinced her that volleyball should be her main sport.
"She told me that in basketball I would just be another good player but that in volleyball I could be one of the best," Williams said. "She also said that I could go farther, there were more opportunities, in volleyball--the pro leagues, beach volleyball and the national team."
She was one of two high school players invited to train with the U.S. team, played for the U.S. in last summer's Canadian Cup and will probably try out for the national B team that will play in next summer's World Games.
Right now, she is concentrating on improving her game and helping UCLA win an NCAA championship, a prize that has eluded the Bruins since they won their only national title in 1984.
Williams said she thinks her defense has improved 100% since high school and that she has become a better hitter since she improved her shot placement.
Large doses of volleyball have not soured her on the sport. She said that she enjoys practices and goes hard "every day because I know Andy relies on me more. So I push myself because I know I can make the team better."