While Natalie Williams enjoyed an 11-day tour of Belgium and France with the Pacific 10 Conference women's basketball all-star team this summer, UCLA women's volleyball Coach Andy Banachowski eagerly awaited her return.
The Bruins are seeking an unprecedented third consecutive NCAA championship this season. They are counting on Williams to lead them.
Williams led all players with 32 kills when UCLA defeated Cal State Long Beach in a come-from-behind victory for the 1991 national title. She was named co-most valuable player of the tournament, along with Long Beach's Antoinette White. It was Williams' second consecutive MVP selection.
UCLA, top-ranked in the American Volleyball Coach's Assn. preseason poll, began practice on Aug. 17. Williams joined the team for her first workout on Monday, and her return was eagerly anticipated.
"It's difficult practicing when you don't have everybody there, and Natalie is someone whose presence is missed . . . not only her skill but also her personality," Banachowski said. "We step up a level when Natalie is in the gym, that's for sure."
But Williams' presence is also requested for part of the year in the basketball gym.
She led the UCLA women's basketball team to the round of 16 in the 1992 NCAA tournament and a 21-10 record. She also led the Pac-10 women's all-star basketball team to a 5-1 record against professional teams in Europe, averaging 22.3 points and 10.8 rebounds.
Williams sees no trouble with the transition from basketball to volleyball.
"(Monday) did not seem like I had missed that big of a beat to come back into practice," Williams said. "This was a nice break. (Playing basketball) kept me in shape all summer, endurance-wise and jumping-wise."
All but one player returns from last year's 31-5 Bruin team. UCLA opens play in the exhibition All-Cal tournament at UC Santa Barbara on Sept. 1.
For second-ranked Long Beach--36-2 last year--White is the only one of last year's starting six who will not return. Long Beach Coach Brian Gimmillaro might look to sophomore Nichelle Burton, who played sparingly as White's substitute last season, to fill the void.
USC Coach Lisa Love, in her fourth year as Trojan coach, said she will have her most experienced USC team. The Trojans finished 23-8 last season and advanced to the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 1985. USC has four starters returning and is ranked 10th in the AVCA poll.